Religious discrimination in Australian health law: hype or reality?

Queensland has passed the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2021.

I’m disappointed in Queensland’s Parliament, not for passing assisted dying legislation, but for consciously trampling over the religious beliefs of Catholic and other religious healthcare organisations.

Catholic hospitals are right to be aggrieved.  It’s entirely predictable that church institutions are now considering civil disobedience. (See “Catholic Hospitals’ Revolt on Euthanasia” Weekend Australian 21-22 August 2021, p 4. See also here).

I mean, if you genuinely believe that intentional killing is wrong, you don’t just help it along because a bunch of politicians told you to, do you?

Catholic moral beliefs preclude intentional killing, yet Queensland’s law will force Catholic hospitals to open their doors and to facilitate actions to end the lives of patients in their care, on their premises, by non-credentialed doctors who do not share their moral values.

The passage of assisted dying laws in Victoria (2017), Western Australia (2019), Tasmania (2021), South Australia (2021), and now Queensland illustrates the growing heft of personal autonomy as a secular value in Australian life.

(I call this the “Dombrink thesis”, after American scholar Professor John Dombrink, who demonstrated the resilience of libertarianism, through – and despite – America’s culture wars.  See here, here, and here.)

Recent assisted dying laws follow on the heels of two decades of reform that have greatly liberalised abortion laws in every State and Territory; see eg here, here, and here.

But if personal autonomy means anything, it ought to extend to those who, despite these changes, have a sincere, morally-grounded opposition to killing and assisted suicide.

In my view, co-opting religious health care organisations to facilitate euthanasia is a step too far.

For further detail on what Queensland’s new law will force religious health care facilities to do, see below.

 

Sharing the love? The importance of singing in church in the middle of a pandemic

Let’s be clear: not all complaints of discrimination or oppression, by churches, in Australia’s largely tolerant democracy, are worthy.

For example, in a Facebook post on 2 July, Pastor Brian Houston of Hillsong fame dismissed Covid delta outbreak restrictions that prohibited singing in church as “religious discrimination…so archaic it’s hard to believe”.

He urged his followers: “Let’s make a stand”.

Judging by their responses, some of Houston’s followers are primed for persecution and reluctant to see themselves as beholden to earthly laws (that is, emergency public health orders).

On 16 June 2021, an outbreak of the insanely infectious delta variant of the Covid virus began in New South Wales.  Daily cases are currently averaging over 1200; see here.

On 20 June, masks became mandatory in “places of public worship, being used for public worship or religious services”, in 7 local government areas.

On 23 June, singing in non-residential premises – including places of worship – was banned. However, a number of exceptions applied, including singing in a performance or rehearsal, singing in educational institutions, singing for the purposes of instruction in singing, or if “the premises are a place of public worship, and the persons singing are members of a choir”.

On 26 June, the exception for choirs was eliminated.

In response to questions raised at a Religious Communities Forum held on 28 June, NSW Health advised forum members by email that the delta outbreak restrictions operating at that time (the Public Health (Covid-19 Temporary Movement and Gathering Restrictions) Order 2021, dated 26 June 2021) did, indeed, prevent singing in places of worship, even if a religious leader was singing to a largely empty church or place of worship as part of a livestream.  Masks must also be worn.

The intent of the restrictions, NSW Health advised, was to prevent transmission between, for example, a singing pastor, and people providing technical assistance during the livestream, given previous evidence of tansmission via singing in a place of worship.

NSW Liberal MP Tanya Davies raised Houston’s concern with Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Health Minister Brad Hazzard.  Hazzard granted an exemption on 3 July, with specified safeguards: see here.

I suspect that quiet diplomacy by Houston would have been equally effective, if the need for religious leaders to sing directly to camera outweighed the importance of protecting others present in the venue from the risk of acquiring the highly infectious delta variant.

I notice one comment on Pastor Houston’s post:

“It’s time people stopped seeing everything as an attack or discrimination. Seriously we are in a pandemic.  Christian leaders should be setting a good example”.

Amen to that. As to which, see here, and here.

 

Moral arm-twisting in Queensland’s voluntary assisted dying legislation

While some complaints of discrimination by religious leaders are over-blown, I would put Part 6 of Queensland’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act in a different category.

The new Act respects the right of a health practitioner not to provide information about voluntary assisted dying, nor to participate in the assessment process for lawful access to assisted dying that the legislation makes available (s 84).

However, Part 6 co-opts health practitioners and forces them to facilitate that assessment process, irrespective of their personal beliefs about the ethics of killing.

Let’s count the ways.

Firstly, a health practitioner with a conscientious objection must either refer a patient requesting information on assisted dying to an officially approved “navigator service” for assisted dying, or to a health practitioner who is known not to have moral scruples about assisted dying and may be willing to assist (s 84(2)).

Secondly, a “relevant entity” (meaning a health care establishment such as a hospital, hospice or nursing home) must not hinder a person’s access to information about assisted dying.

In order not to do so, the health facility must provide entry to a registered health practitioner, or member or employee of an approved navigator service in order to “provide the requested information to the person about voluntary assisted dying” (ss 90, 156).

Thirdly, the new Act requires a health care facility operated by a church or religious organisation to provide access to an (external) medical practitioner who is willing to act as the patient’s “coordinating medical practitioner” for the purposes of facilitating assessment and taking the various actions required by the legislation in response to the patient’s first, second and final requests for assistance to die (ss 9, 92-93).

If the medical practitioner requested by the patient is unable to attend, the religious health care organisation must facilitate the transfer of the patient to and from a place where the patient can formally request assistance from a medical practitioner who is willing to act as the coordinating medical practitioner (ss 9, 92(3); 93(3)).

Fourthly, the religious health care facility must facilitate the coordinating medical practitioner (or their delegate) to carry out a “first assessment” of the patient’s eligibility for dying assistance under the Act, either by permitting this to occur within the facility, or by facilitating transfer of the person to and from a place where the assessment can take place (ss 9, 19, 94).

The same obligations apply to the second, independent “consulting assessment” that occurs if the coordinating medical practitioner concludes from the first assessment that the patient is eligible for voluntary assisted dying (ss 9-10, 30, 95).

After making a third and final request, and undergoing a final review, an eligible patient may decide to self-administer a voluntary assisted dying drug or, if advised that this is inappropriate, may choose to have the drug administered by the coordinating practitioner (ss 50, 56).

This step triggers a number of authorisations, including the right to prescribe, supply, possess and self-administer, or administer the drug overdose to the patient (ss 52-53).

Again, the legislation requires a religious health care facility to provide access to the coordinating practitioner so that the patient can choose how the drug will be delivered – whether within the facility, or by assisting transfer and travel to a place outside the facility where these decisions can be made (s 96).

The facility must then provide access to the administering practitioner and witnesses to enable assisted dying to take place on the premises, and must not hinder self-administration if the patient has made a self-administration decision (s 97).

These statutory requirements honour the voluntary assisted dying principle that “a person should be supported in making informed decisions about end of life choices” (s 5(f)), and that “access to voluntary assisted dying…should be available regardless of where a person lives in Queensland” (s 5(e)).

Another principle recognised in the legislation is that “a person’s freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief and enjoyment of their culture should be respected” (s 5(h)).

However, by forcing religious health care facilities to cooperate in processes whose central aim is intentional killing, (I am not here debating the rigour of safeguards) the legislation tramples over well-known and defended moral values that lie at the heart of professional, competent, yet religiously-informed health care.

The bottom line

Like abortion, assisted dying is one of the enduring ethical fault lines in medicine.

Politicians can’t legislate it away.

Part 6 of Queensland’s Act seems hell-bent on making victims of doctors and religious organisations that have long-standing, deeply felt moral objections to intentional killing.

There ought to be room in Australia’s liberal democracy for religious hospitals and hospices to offer their services, including high-quality palliative care, in accordance with long-standing ethical values, without putting euthanasia on the menu.

Patients who request assessment for assisted dying should be transferred to a facility where such actions do not offend long-standing institutional values, as provided in South Australia’s legislation, which recognises a right of conscientious objection for hospitals and other health care establishments (see s 11, although this does not extend to nursing homes).

The Covidsafe app: speed at the expense of transparency and accountability

Photo: Markus Winkler via Unsplash

Australia’s COVIDSafe app was launched by the Australian Government in April 2020. The app uses Bluetooth technology to record “contact events” or “digital handshakes” between app users, which are stored on users’ phones for 21 days. Contact events include the encrypted ID of the other contact user, the Bluetooth signal strength during the event, and its duration and time (but not location data). If a user tests positive, this information is uploaded to the National COVIDSafe Data Store (a cloud-based data repository supported by Amazon Web Services and administered by the Digital Transformation Agency), where it can be decrypted for use by state contact tracers.

The app has been hampered by concerns about its security, privacy, and effectiveness. Amendments to the federal Privacy Act (1987) created a legislative framework for protecting the privacy of app data and preventing ‘function creep’, i.e., the risk of data being used for purposes other than contact tracing, such as law enforcement. This framework follows the same format as other privacy laws in Australia (such as legislation that applies to the MyHealth Record System), setting out a series of permitted uses, collections, and disclosures of app data related to contact tracing and maintaining the data store and the app. All other collections, uses, or discloses are prohibited, as is uploading app data from a user’s device to the data store without their consent, retaining or disclosing data to someone outside Australia (unless for contact tracing purposes), and decrypting app data on a user’s device.

Crucially, the legislation protects voluntary use, for example, by making it an offence to require someone to download or use the app, or to refuse to provide them with goods or services because they’re not using it. The legislation also creates a mechanism for dismantling the system when it is no longer needed, and for deleting the information contained in the data store.

The basic legislative privacy protections on the app are sound, although commentators have identified some ways in which they could be strengthened, for example, by providing for the periodic removal of contact event data from the data store.

Where the system really falls down is in the design and operation of the app itself. This invokes the concept of privacy by design, i.e., building privacy protections into the physical design, architecture, and computer code of the device or system concerned. Privacy in the digital realm can be protected through multiple channels, including contractual mechanisms, legislation, and design-based solutions. The physical design of the system or device is at least as important – if not more so – than any legal frameworks that apply. This is often referred to as “code” or “architecture”-based regulation, and it’s interesting to consider whether or how the privacy and transparency concerns raised below could also be addressed through legislation.

Privacy advocates and tech experts have extensively canvassed the security and privacy flaws in the app, as well as technical problems that prevent it from operating effectively. This report, by a group of software developer and cybersecurity experts, provides a comprehensive and readable summary. Some of the early bugs included “phone model and name being constantly exposed and unique identifiers being available to track over time… undetectable, permanent long-term tracking of iOS and Android devices and attackers being able to control devices remotely” (p.7). The authors point out that many of the app’s technical challenges stem from the use of Bluetooth for a function it wasn’t originally intended for, i.e., continually and indefinitely scanning the environment for other devices, and then making connections with them.  

They also say that some of the technical issues with the app resulted from a lack of consultation with tech experts (and the wider community) during its development, as well as a lack of testing and verification.

Also concerning has been the DTA’s slow response to concerns raised by the tech community once the app was launched, as well as limited transparency in the scheme’s operation. This includes the DTA’s failure to release the number of active users, and the Government’s reluctance to release the full version of an independent report on the app’s operation, which found that the app imposed significant time costs on contact tracers for no little additional benefit. Some of this information was omitted in a shorter version of the report originally made publicly available.

The Government has taken steps to address some of the bugs in the app, including through the adoption of the “Herald” protocol in December 2020, although the authors of the report mentioned above say this protocol still has problems, and in fact reintroduced some issues that had been fixed previously. They call for the Government to adopt the Exposure Notification Framework developed by Apple and Google, which doesn’t create the same privacy and security challenges as the Covidsafe app.

There have also been developments in the responsiveness and transparency of the scheme. For example, the DTA has identified a contact point for security concerns, and in April 2020, it made publicly available the full source code for the app, which is hosted on a Github repository. But, according to researcher Emma Blomkamp, the early lack of community engagement was a missed opportunity to build public acceptability of the app or a ‘social licence to operate’ (particularly among Australia’s diverse communities) and to inform the public about the app’s operation and the privacy protections that would apply.

Trust in government is crucial to an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic. By now, we all know that governments possess highly coercive powers for responding to public health emergencies. But to a significant extent, governments must rely on people voluntarily doing the right thing, including downloading the Covidsafe app and sharing their personal information with contact tracers. That’s much more likely to happen when people trust the government, and that trust is much more likely when there’s a transparent and accountable system in place, combined with rigorous privacy protections, both “code” and law based.

This is an area where a fast rollout shouldn’t have come at the expense of a responsive, transparent, or accountable one.


A triumph for religious freedom, or viral spreading? The US Supreme Court in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v Cuomo

During his Presidency, President Trump had the opportunity to appoint three new Justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • In 2017, the acerbic conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch replaced Justice Antonin Scalia;
  • In 2018, Justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy; and
  • In 2020, Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

These three appointments have tipped the balance of the Supreme Court strongly in favour of conservatives. The impact of a more conservative court in coming decades may be President Trump’s most enduring legacy.  It is also likely to have a significant impact on American health law.

Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v Cuomo, discussed in this post, provides an early example of the impact of the Trump appointments within the field of pandemic preparedness and control.

In Cuomo, the Supreme Court considered what is called the “Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment, which provides that “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”.

Constitutional human rights protections…and health

In many cases, human rights guarantees strengthen the protection of public health.

Take, for example, free speech.  A free and fearless media is enormously important for its role in demanding government accountability.  In authoritarian regimes and one party states, where genuinely free and fair elections only happen elsewhere, the lack of a free media, and the lack of media diversity mean that the government’s performance in addressing health risks rarely becomes the subject of public scrutiny or critique.

This diminishes accountability.  (Yet it’s precisely this idea that the government is accountable to the people that is absent in authoritarian societies).

Freedom of speech and a free media also enable the sharing of information (fact, evidence) and opinion between citizens. This enables people to be informed, and it facilitates debate. It enables people to make their own informed choices, including during elections.

However, it’s not always the case that where the constitution guarantees human rights, that the vindication of these rights will advance the health of the population.

The protection of human rights, and health, are frequently, but in my view not always aligned (whatever the health and human rights school may assert).

This is partly because health is only one of a variety of values that are typically given constitutional protection.  Other values include, as noted, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.

It’s also partly because – in countries that guarantee human rights in their constitutions – the interpretation of the scope of the constitutional guarantee is a matter for the courts.

In countries where the courts are frequently called on to adjudicate on sensitive political matters, the appointment of justices to the highest appellate courts can become politicised.

Australia, in contrast to the United States, has very few constitutionally protected human rights (and although s 116 of Australia’s Constitution uses very similar language to the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, it has been interpreted very differently.

This does not mean that Australia is not a liberal democracy; what it means is that the balancing of human rights considerations is ultimately a matter for Parliaments – and our democratically elected representatives – rather than for the courts.

New York State’s microcluster Covid strategy

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo was well known for his daily briefings during mid 2020 as New York City bore the early brunt on Covid-19 infections in the United States. On 6 October 2020, Governor Cuomo signed Executive Order 202.68.

This order stated that the Health Department shall determine areas of the State that by virtue of being designated as red, orange or yellow zones, shall be subject to enhanced public health restrictions based on “cluster-based cases of Covid-19”.

In simple terms, yellow, orange and red zones were areas of the state where Covid-19 cases were rising.  A red zone was an area where the 7-day rolling positivity rate was above 4% for 10 days, and red zone restrictions were intended to prevent spread from a specific area.

A yellow zone was a warning zone where the 7-day rolling positivity rate was above 3% for 10 days.

Amongst other restrictions, in places designated as red zones, places of worship were restricted to “a capacity limit of 25% of maximum occupancy or 10 people, whichever is fewer”.

In places designated as orange zones, “houses of worship shall be subject to a maximum capacity limit of the lesser of 33% of maximum occupancy or 25 people, whichever is fewer”.

In other words, places of worship in red zones were restricted to 10 people, and places of worship in orange zones were restricted to 25 people.

In Australia, at the height of the initial lock-down period in New South Wales (around April 2020), places of worship were closed entirely, with limited exceptions.

I am not aware that this ever led to litigation.

[Covid-related restrictions on freedom of expression and movement, on the other hand, were another story, particularly when it came to the right to participate in demonstrations, including those in support of indigenous rights and the black lives matter movement.  See, for example, here, here, here and here].

At the time of writing (July 2021), New South Wales has been returned to hard lockdown in an effort to eliminate community outbreaks of the delta variant.

By executive order, places of public worship have been closed, although wedding services involving not more than 5 people can take place, and a priest or minister of religion can go to a person’s place to provide pastoral care.

Self-evidently, these restrictions neither denigrate religion nor deny its importance in people’s lives. There are many religions in Australia, many people of faith. These restrictions are temporary, as the chronological record of executive orders illustrates, as Australian State governments have clamped down hard on outbreaks, and then opened up again.

You’ll find the full list of Covid-related public health orders, applicable to NSW, here.

Religion comes first

Coming right in the middle of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (also known as the Feast of Tabernacles), Orthodox Jewish groups saw Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order as religious discrimination.

An orthodox organisation, Agudath Israel of America, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, sought an injunction against the Executive Order on the basis that it violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

As noted above, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment provides that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

Although the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment refers to “Congress” (that is, the two Houses of Congress that are the supreme Federal law-making body), the constitutional guarantees also protect against interference by State governments, including Gubernatorial executive decrees.

A triumph for religious freedom…or viral spreading?

In Cuomo, the Supreme Court struck down Governor Cuomo’s order by a 5 to 4 majority.

The majority was made up of Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Samuel Alito, and the three Trump appointees: Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanagh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh also wrote concurring opinions. Chief Justice Roberts dissented, as did Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayer, and Elena Kagan.

The majority opinion is short.  On p 3, the majority justices agreed that the applicants had demonstrated that the Executive Order was not “neutral” to religion because while a synagogue or church in a red zone could not admit more than 10 persons, these restrictions did not apply to a list of “essential businesses”, which included “acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages” and plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics”.

I dare say the risks of Covid spread are rather less in an acupuncture facility than in a congregation of the faithful belting out “Onward Christian Soldiers”, but the Supreme Court majority didn’t take the point.*

Having concluded that the law was not neutral, the majority then applied “strict scrutiny”: a standard of constitutional scrutiny that requires the government to prove that the law is “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling” state interest.

The majority accepted that stemming the spread of Covid-19 is a compelling interest, but concluded that the regulations were not “narrowly tailored” because there was no evidence of Covid outbreaks among the applicants’ congregations.

What kind of body count would have provided satisfactory evidence, I wonder?

The majority also thought that less restrictive rules could be adopted to “minimize the risk to those attending religious services”, including by linking the maximum attendance at a religious service to the size of the church or synagogue. “[E]ven in a pandemic, the constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.  The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty”, the majority wrote (p 5).

Justice Gorsuch and the protection of the public’s health

A feature of the opinions of the majority Justices is their relative lack of deference to the experience, competence or expertise of public health leaders in crafting pre-emptive measures to reduce Covid spread.

There is no recognition in any of the majority opinions that the risk of Covid spread in churches and other houses of worship, where singing or chanting takes place and where hundreds of people may huddle together, is any different from stores and shops, where people wear masks, and are not so tightly packed.

On p 3 of this concurring opinion, Justice Gorsuch pointedly criticised the 100 year-old case of Jacobson v Massachusetts.  This was a case in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of the State of Massachusetts to require people to be vaccinated for smallpox, or pay a fine.

Justice Gorsuch pointed out (pp 3-4) that courts will apply rational basis review as the standard of scrutiny in their constitutional review of State laws, provided that fundamental or constitutionally protected rights are not implicated.

[Rational basis review is a lower level of constitutional scrutiny.  To withstand rational basis review, the State must show that the State’s laws or actions are “rationally related” to a “legitimate” interest.]

However, Justice Gorsuch pointed out that religious activities must be treated “at least as well as comparable secular activities unless it can meet the demands of strict scrutiny” (p 4).

Justice Gorsuch (pp 5-6) goes on to criticise the opinion of Chief Justice Roberts, who dissented, and to surmise that the dissentients on the court wished “to stay out of the way in times of crisis”.

He continues: “[T]here is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques.”

Real world consequences

As at July 2021, New York State (population 20.4 million) has had 2.1 million Covid-19 cases, and nearly 54,000 deaths.

Australia (population 26 million) has had 31,000 cases and 910 deaths. With emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants, things could change quickly.

The US has certainly struggled – really struggled – to effectively control the spread of Covid-19, and the world has looked on.  The loss of life has been horrific, and extraordinary for such a wealthy, capable country.

Thoughtful commentary explores why: see, for example, here, here, here and here.

For lovers of democracy and human rights, America’s experience has been tragic in another respect: it adds heft to the narrative of autocrats and dictators that democratic government is ill-fitted to the challenges of the age.

What does make sense, in a democratic society where the rule of law operates, where elected officials are fulfilling the mandate granted by voters, is for them to be afforded a measure of deference – of operational space – to design instruments that prevent disease transmission and loss of life, in an environment that remains substantially uncertain.

If strict scrutiny is ever used as a weapon to paralyse government during a public health emergency, it will come at a price.

Why? Because swift and decisive government action to stamp out outbreaks of lethal variants is the key to saving lives, at least in countries where substantial numbers of the population remain unvaccinated. Viruses don’t care about human rights, and they never went to Law School. They don’t care if you are sincere in your beliefs or if you “truly believe”. They just jump from person to person when you get too close.

Ironically, when government does get it right, and no one dies, it all suddenly starts to look like overkill.

In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts stated that: “[I]t is a significant matter to override determinations made by public health officials concerning what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic”.

His Honour wrote: “I do not regard my dissenting colleagues as “cutting the Constitution lose during a pandemic” or “shelter[ing] in place when the Constitution is under attack”.

Chief Justice Roberts then paraphrased Jacobson v Massachusetts (197 U.S. 11 (1905), 38, writing that “[o]ur Constitution principally entrusts [t]he safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the States to ‘guard and protect’.

It’s not clear, he says, which part of this phrase is so discomfiting to the majority justices.

Justice Breyer, in dissent, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, expressed similar sentiments (p 27/33).

What does seem clear, when you read the Cuomo decision, is that the new majority on the US Supreme Court will be far less likely to defer to expert opinion (however well founded) or to politically accountable State officials when it comes to scrutinising emergency regulations. It doesn’t bode well for elected officials seeking to discharge the one public duty that most libertarians would grudgingly concede: keeping the body count down during outbreaks of a deadly, contagious disease.

*Indeed, congregational singing was an interesting footnote in a subsequent case in which the Supreme Court struck down a Californian ban on indoor worship services. In South Bay United Pentecostal Church v Newsom, Justice Gorsuch wrote: “Of course we are not scientists, but….[e]ven in times of crisis – perhaps especially in times of crisis – we have a duty to hold governments to the Constitution” (p 5/15). It was left to Justice Kagan, dissenting with Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, to respond: “Justices of this court are not scientists. Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the Court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging epidemic. The court orders California to weaken its restrictions on public gatherings by making a special exception for worship services….Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger…” (p 10/15).

Sydney Law School will be offering Critical Issues in Public Health Law, a postgraduate unit that explores Australian and international responses to infectious disease, as part of its Master of Health Law, in semester 1, 2022. See here or here for more information.

The tricky business of Covid-19 reviews & origins investigations

Dr Dominic Dwyer, Australia’s member of the WHO-convened Global Study of the Origins of SARS-CoV-2, won’t remember me, but he was generous and helpful when I interviewed him as a PhD student in the early 1990s.

His more recent comments to the media illustrate the challenges of attempting to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2 as part of a WHO-convened expert team (more of which below).

This post briefly reviews two current Covid-19 review processes, as well as recent media reports about the WHO-convened Covid origins study.

Covid-19 reviews

At the World Health Assembly on 19 May 2020, the Assembly adopted resolution WHA73.1 on the Covid-19 response that, amongst many other things, requested the Director-General to carry out a review on “lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19”, including the functioning of the International Health Regulations and “the actions of WHO and their timelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic” (para 10).

Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response

On 9 July 2020, the WHO Director-General announced the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR) to “evaluate the world’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

This Panel is co-chaired by the Rt. Hon. Helen Clarke, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand who more recently was Administrator of the UN Development Programme, and Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former President of Liberia.

The work of the Independent Panel is ongoing. However, its second progress report is available.

The Panel points out that 12 previous expert commissions have reviewed the operation of the International Health Regulations between 2011 and the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The Panel notes with deep concern that the “failure to enact fundamental changes despite the warnings issued has left the world dangerously exposed, as the Covid-19 pandemic proves” (p 14).

Other key messages from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response:

Review Committee on the Functioning of the International Health Regulation

On 8 September 2020, also in response to resolution WHA73.1, the Director-General convened a Review Committee on the Functioning of the IHR during the Covid-19 response.

This Committee’s mandate is directed towards how well the IHRs performed during the Covid-19 response, the status of recommendations of previous reviews, and the need for amendments to the IHR.

Its interim progress report is available here.

The Committee pointed to the lack of a robust accountability mechanism to monitor and incentivise compliance with the IHR, beyond the requirement for States Parties’ and the Director-General to report to the World Health Assembly on the implementation of the Regulations (Art. 54). A “robust system of compliance evaluation built into the Regulations” was proposed as one possible approach.

Recommendations to strengthen the IHR have been circulating for years.  See here and here for short, helpful, reviews.

The Committee noted that “A peer-review mechanism, based on the Universal Periodic Review used by the Human Rights Council,” could be a useful way of strengthening countries’ levels of preparedness and response, and compliance with their legal obligations (para 18).

China’s reporting of the initial SARS-CoV-2 outbreak has been widely discussed. The cluster of cases from the Huanan market was reported to the WHO China country office on 31 December 2019, and the market was closed on 1 January 2020.

The interim report states that WHO requested verification of the initial reports on 1 January, receiving a response from the China Focal Point on 3 January.

Under the IHR, States Parties are supposed to reply to WHO requests for verification or further information within 24 hours (IHR, Art. 10), but the report notes that delay beyond 24 hours is not unusual.

The Committee stated that the timelines for country response are not realistic, given that social media can result in information reaching the public domain before a comprehensive risk assessment is completed.  It also noted that “countries may be reluctant to report on events if they perceive consequences, mainly related to travel and trade, deriving from early notification.”

On 9 January 2020, WHO did not recommend any specific measures for travellers, and advised against any travel or trade restrictions on China.

A day later, China media reported the first death from Covid-19, and three days later, the first case was reported outside Chinese territory.

On 29 February 2020, updated WHO recommendations for international traffic in relation to Covid-19 stated: “WHO continues to advise against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing Covid-19 outbreaks”.

Australia began to impose travel restrictions in response to Covid-19 on 1 February 2020.  Initially, the ban prevented foreign nationals (excluding permanent Australian residents) who had been in mainland China from entering Australia for “14 days from the time they left or transited through mainland China“.

On 20 March 2020, Australia closed its borders completely to non-citizens and non-residents. They have remained closed since then.

Travel restrictions have since become a staple for national responses to Covid-19 spread, although some scholars argue they breach the IHRs; see discussion here and here.

But no one is listening, then or now. In his annual report to the World Health Assembly on the functioning of the International Health Regulations, the Director-General stated that as at 28 March 2020, 136 countries had reported to WHO under Article 43 about “additional health measures that significantly interfered with international traffic and provided their public health rationale”.

In an ideal world, perhaps borders could remain open and watertight screening, contact tracing and isolation measures could effectively prevent spread.  But it’s a brave country that completely trusts its own implementation of these important public health controls: SARS-CoV-2 is devilishly infectious, and aerosol transmission can occur even when normal hotel quarantine and infection controls are in place.

Public health experts regard Australia’s travel bans as an important and necessary part of Australia’s successful response. For example, Duckett and Stobart regard “Australia’s decision to close its borders to all foreigners on 20 March to ‘align international travel restrictions with risks'” as a “turning point” in Australia’s response.

In her evidence to the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into Australia’s Response to Covid-19, Professor Raina MacIntyre, who leads the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, described travel bans (border closures) as “the single most important measure” (para 2.43), a conclusion supported by this modelling study. Unfortunate – certainly, but necessary to avoid importing new cases.

WHO-convened Global Study of the Origins of SARS-CoV-2

In late January, an international team of virologists travelled to Wuhan on a fact-finding mission as part of a WHO-convened global study into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

The findings of this mission were discussed in a press conference on 9 February. Dr Peter Ben Embarek, the chair of the investigation team, said that it was extremely unlikely that the coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan laboratory.

Dr Dwyer shares this assessment. His account of the Wuhan visit, refreshingly devoid of geo-political posturing, illustrates just how much remains unknown.

One giant limitation of the WHO-convened Wuhan study tour was the fact it took place a whole year after the initial outbreak.

Australia’s original call for an independent investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 greatly displeased China.

However, when you consider the scale of the death and economic harm caused by Covid-19, it is simply breath-taking that such an outbreak should go unexamined. Not surprisingly several inquiries are now proceeding.

Investigating the origins of SARS-Cov-2 was and is unavoidably sensitive, not only because it involves asking where the virus may have originated, and the conditions that facilitated its spread into the human population, but because the likely time period during which the first-observed cases arose goes to China’s level of compliance with the IHR, and the impact this may have had on the international spread of SARS-CoV-2.

The controversy surrounding the WHO-convened study has escalated since the international team left Wuhan.

Dr Dwyer noted that the visiting scientists were given access to aggregated data and summaries of medical records (of the tens of thousands of patients in Wuhan with influenza-like illnesses in months prior to December 2019), rather than access to the raw data.

Dr Dwyer also told the ABC that the expert team’s request to test stored samples of blood donations made in Wuhan around December 2019 was denied, apparently for legal reasons, although it might have given a picture of SARS-CoV-2 levels in the wider community at that time.

Requests to test wastewater samples from Wuhan in December 2019 was also not possible because all samples had been discarded. (Many people with Covid-19 have gastrointestinal infection as well as respiratory infection, making wastewater sampling a form of sentinel surveillance for community cases).

These sources of information might have given a clearer picture of whether and how much virus was circulating in the community prior to December 2019.

“We also know the Chinese were reporting the people who went to hospital were really sick,” Dr Dwyer said.  “But we now know there’s a lot of ordinary transmission going on between otherwise healthy people, so there must’ve been many, many more cases in December than were identified.”

However, Dwyer regards the Huanan market as “more of an amplifying event rather than necessarily a true ground zero. We need to look elsewhere for the viral origins”.

On 4 March, 26 international experts in virology, zoology and microbiology, called for a new inquiry, stating that it was “all but impossible” for the WHO-convened researchers to adequately investigate the origins of the outbreak.

The scientists wrote that “We have…reached the conclusion that the joint team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses – whether natural spillover or laboratory/research-related incident”.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that WHO has decided to scrap publication of the interim report of the WHO-convened international team. The full report is expected “in coming weeks”.

COVID-19, patients’ mental capacity and prisoners

@mbaumi via Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic has raised an abundance of issues at the intersection of law and medicine. In recent co-authored articles, Cameron Stewart, Professor of Health, Law and Ethics at the University of Sydney Law School considers some of these issues.

Mental capacity assessments for COVID-19 patients: Emergency admissions and the CARD approach

In this Journal of Bioethical Inquiry articleProfessor Cameron Stewart and colleagues examine the principles of mental capacity and make recommendations on how to assess the capacity of COVID-19 patients to consent to emergency medical treatment.

“The combination of very sick patients, knowledge deficits, and high pressure environments is likely to make capacity assessment very difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The article provides examples of mental capacity disputes in a number of common law jurisdictions before recommending that in emergency admissions for COVID-19, health practitioners use what Professor Stewart and his co-authors term the “CARD” approach (Comprehend, Appreciate, Reason, and Decide).

“CARD gives clinicians a legally defensible means of rapidly determining the mental capacity of COVID-19 patients, essential to guide urgent treatment and ensure that patients’ best interests are ultimately served in the process.”

COVID-19, Australian prisons: Human rights, risks and responses

Australian prisons have, so far, avoided the levels of COVID-19 infection experienced in the United States and elsewhere, but the potential for high infection rates remains.

In a November 2020 article in the Journal of Bioethical InquiryProfessor Cameron Stewart and colleagues consider what steps the state should take to protect prisoners. The article looks at Australian prisons’ regulatory responses to COVID-19 and considers calls for the release (decarceration) of some prisoners, including the Victorian case of Rowson v Department of Justice and Community Safety [2020] VSC 236. In that case, a prisoner unsuccessfully sought release pending departmental consideration of his application for release into home detention on health grounds — namely, risk of serious injury or death from COVID-19.

Professor Stewart and his co-authors conclude:

“Ultimately, COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reconsider the deeper issues regarding use of incarceration as a punishment and the human rights of prisoners more generally.”

Cameron Stewart teaches in Sydney Law School’s Master of Health Law program, including subjects on Death Law, Health Care and Professional Liability, and Government Regulation, Health Policy and Ethics.

Related posts on COVID-19 from the Sydney Health Law team:

https://sydneyhealthlaw.com/2020/11/04/covid-19-medical-research-governance-and-public-health-orders/

https://sydneyhealthlaw.com/2020/03/18/whos-in-control-of-australias-response-to-coronavirus-part-1-legal-frameworks/

https://sydneyhealthlaw.com/2020/03/19/whos-in-control-of-australias-response-to-coronavirus-part-2-operational-responses/

https://sydneyhealthlaw.com/2020/08/26/rule-of-law-in-the-covid-19-response/

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11673-020-10055-2

COVID-19, medical research governance, and public health orders

Image: Mika Baumeister

Posted by Belinda Reeve on behalf of Cate Stewart

The impact of coronavirus-related biomedical research and public heath laws have been considered in recent articles co-authored by Cameron Stewart, Professor of Health, Law and Ethics at the University of Sydney Law School.

Science at warp speed: COVID-19 medical research governance

In biomedical research focused on developing COVID-19 vaccines and therapies, the need for speed is taken for granted. But “what, if anything, might be lost when biomedical innovation is sped up”? In a timely article in the Journal of Bioethical InquiryProfessor Cameron Stewart and colleagues, consider a study (on the use of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID-19) recently retracted from The Lancet to illustrate the potential risks and harms associated with speeding up science.

As Professor Stewart and his co-authors note:

[T]the potential damage caused by not ensuring effective governance of research during epidemics may be immense. Harmful drugs and devices might go on to injure millions of people, useful drugs and devices might be abandoned, the public’s faith in science and medicine might be undermined, and irrational and ineffective healthcare might proliferate.

The article goes on to suggest a range of measures to address weaknesses in technical or methodological rigour, lack of peer oversight, and unmanaged conflict of interest in pandemic research.

“This is a difficult conversation, but one that must be undertaken. After all, this is not the first time that science has been sped up during pandemics with problematic effects, and we will undoubtedly need to speed science up again, many times in the future.”

COVID-19 public health orders and mental health practitioners

Professor Cameron Stewart and colleagues look at restrictive practices in Australian COVID-19 public health orders and their implications for mental health practitioners in the October 2020 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing.

Their article notes that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, health authorities in all Australian jurisdictions can invoke public health orders that allow for an extremely broad range of coercive orders, including forcible detention, testing, and treatment of any person reasonably suspected of being COVID-19 positive.

The article highlights relevant public health laws for mental health practitioners to be aware of and suggests that mental health units and public health units establish lines of communication to work together.

Professor Stewart and his colleagues conclude with a call for nationally consistent regulation as “the best way to encourage best practice, fair decision-making, the protection of human rights, and the promotion of public safety”.

Cameron Stewart teaches in Sydney Law School’s Master of Health Law program, including subjects on Death Law, Health Care and Professional Liability, and Government Regulation, Health Policy and Ethics.

Related posts on COVID-19 from the Sydney Health Law team:

https://sydneyhealthlaw.com/2020/03/18/whos-in-control-of-australias-response-to-coronavirus-part-1-legal-frameworks/

https://sydneyhealthlaw.com/2020/03/19/whos-in-control-of-australias-response-to-coronavirus-part-2-operational-responses/

https://sydneyhealthlaw.com/2020/08/26/rule-of-law-in-the-covid-19-response

Rule of law in the Covid-19 response

The International Development Law Organisation (IDLO) has released a short publication that highlights the role of law in governments’ response to Covid-19.  See here.

Established by international treaty in 1988, IDLO is an inter-governmental organisation devoted to upholding the rule of law.  Australia, and the United States, are among its 37 member parties, which span both developed and developing countries.

IDLO works in over 30 countries and across a range of legally-relevant areas, including public health, sustainability, access to justice, the rule of law and gender.

Sydney Law School collaborated with IDLO, the World Health Organisation and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in the 2017 publication, Advancing the right to health: the vital role of law.  An update and summary guide to the report was published in 2018, see here.

The vital role of law in the Covid-19 response identifies a number of lessons that both publications have for law’s role in the current coronavirus pandemic.

Covid-19 and the rule of law

A statement by IDLO’s Director-General, Jan Beagle, also draws attention to how the rule of law can contribute to an effective global response to Covid-19.

The rule of law is the principle that law-making processes should be transparent, laws should be enforced fairly, courts and tribunals should be independent, and the administration of law and its substantive content should be consistent with international human rights standards (see here, p 7).

Director-General Beagle draws attention, firstly, to the way that the rule of law and the justice sector can temper raw political responses to epidemics, allowing “carefully tailored” emergency measures that “protect people from infection and disease, while respecting their civil, political, economic and social rights”.

For example, where legal or executive processes are used to create “disproportionately excessive powers”, international human rights law, and legal instruments such as the International Health Regulations, provide standards for restoring balance.

Secondly, Director-General Beagle points out that the rule of law “can be a lifeline for society’s most vulnerable in times of crisis.  She writes:

“When freedom of movement is restricted and resources are scarce, feelings of stress, anxiety and alienation can exacerbate exclusion, discrimination and social fissures and have a disproportionate impact on people living in extreme poverty, women and girls, the elderly, children, people with disabilities, migrants, refugees and displaced persons, prisoners, and those living in situations of conflict and insecurity”.

Evidence of these social fissures is seen, for example, in rising rates of family and domestic violence since Covid-19 began, particularly against women and children.  See here, here and here.  UN Women calls this a “shadow pandemic”.

At times like this, the role of justice institutions and the rule of law is more important than ever to “protect the rights of the least powerful among us”.

Finally, Director-General Beagle refers to the rule of law in providing “concrete pathways for post-emergency recovery”, including by addressing the “socio-economic consequences of the epidemic”.

“This will require greater investments in public institutions and inclusive and participatory policymaking to help communities to come together and maintain social cohesion in the aftermath of this pandemic”.

Law’s mission in public health

Although commenting specifically on the rule of law, Director-General Beagle’s statement helps to identify some key features of the mission that law can have – in my view ought to have – within the arena of public health.

Law is a tool that can be used for deploying, but also constraining, political power.  Wisely used, it can create an effective legal framework for health protection that is led by government, and informed by human rights.

However, in fulfilling its role in health protection, law’s role is not – or should not only be – to improve health “on average”, but to help tackle the factors that drive inequalities in health: the deep pools of disadvantage that persist even when average health improves.  Health law work is certainly about improving average health, but it’s also about effective health protection for those who will be left behind – or trampled underfoot – if all we care about is the law of averages.  A growing literature is beginning to document the social gradient of Covid-19 transmission, in the sense that economic and social disparities can amplify virus transmission, just as they amplify risks and poor health outcomes in other areas.

Finally, in speaking of law’s role in supporting “the resilience of communities against future crises”, Director-General Beagle also draws attention to the future dimensions of public health law.  The purpose of public health law is not only to secure the present, but to create legal frameworks that will help to give future generations the opportunity to enjoy a healthy life.

Law’s mission in public health is ambitious, and the rule of law is a critical part of that mission.  With Covid-19, global warming, and persistent epidemics of non-communicable diseases (and their risk factors) such as cancer, diabetes, and obesity, the need for health law specialists has never been greater.

Are you interested in studying health law?  Click here, here and here for more details.