Rights and Quarantine During the SARS Global Health Crisis: Differentiated Legal Consciousness in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Toronto

Jacobs, L.
Publication language
Date published
30 Aug 2007
Law & Society Review
Disasters, Epidemics & pandemics, Urban
Canada, China, China - Hong Kong (Special Administrative Region)

Interventions in public health crises inevitably give rise to concerns about how the balance between rights concerns and community health security might be handled. During the SARS global health crisis, different jurisdictions struggled simultaneously with similar public health challenges posed by the previously unknown and deadly disease. Yet instead of a convergence of strategies, different jurisdictions responded with measures, especially with regard to the use of quarantine, that revealed a pattern of divergence about how to strike the balance between rights concerns and health security. The origins of this article stem from the realization that Toronto's use of quarantine was far more extensive than that of either Hong Kong or Shanghai, two jurisdictions with historically weak records regarding respect for fundamental rights and civil liberties. Perspectives on the balancing of individual rights and community health security are treated here as expressions of legal consciousness. Instead of assuming a uniform legal consciousness in Toronto, Shanghai, or Hong Kong, this article presents legal consciousness as varied among groups of individuals differently situated in the crisis. The promise of this differentiated approach to legal consciousness is that it facilitates both drawing contrasts between perspectives of differently situated groups within the same city and noting commonalities between similarly situated groups in other cities. Through an examination of three distinct perspectives on rights and quarantine in each city—those of senior public health officials, frontline hospital workers, and contacts of SARS patients—the competing legal meanings and understandings about the tensions between community health security and individual rights during the SARS crisis are identified in a way that enables us to better understand the pattern of different uses of quarantine.