Resolve to Save Lives

Public Health Emergency Laws: A Legal Guide

Rendering of the 2019-nCoV virion. Dan Higgins, MAM/CDC/REUTERS

When a public health emergency strikes, the legal framework provides officials and other stakeholders with a legal mandate and protocol to detect and respond to the threat.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed strengths and shortcomings in many legal frameworks. Unprepared countries across the globe scrambled to draft new systems of rules, resulting in an ineffective public health response, loss of public trust and damage to individual rights and freedoms.

This legal guide is meant to help government decision-makers develop a legal framework that can respond appropriately to public health emergencies.

These laws need to provide the government with strong, clear and flexible authority to respond to an emergency. While every country should enact laws appropriate for the local context, there are several general characteristics that distinguish the most effective laws. In some countries these features may all be contained in a single public health emergency law, while in other countries they might be spread across a variety of legislation, regulations and other legal measures. This document outlines these touchstone characteristics to help policymakers design an appropriate legal framework.

 Effective public health emergency laws:

  1. Address the complete lifecycle of emergencies
  2. Define the triggering events
  3. Balance strong and agile decision-making with meaningful oversight
  4. Fund adequately
  5. Equip authorities with all relevant public health tools
  6. Fulfill IHR obligations
  7. Protect human rights
  8. Integrate functioning health strategies
  9. Ensure flow of health data across all levels of governance
  10. Safeguard health care workers
  11. Enforce the rules without imposing unjust penalties
  12. Promote transparency

The legal guide provides background information on and describes key elements of these characteristics. Users of the guide are invited to review their current legal framework or new draft legislation through assessment questions for each characteristic. Additional resources are also available to provide more information on specific issues.