COVID-19 & its Effect on the Health Law Sector

On June 11, 2020 Professor Lindsay Wiley was the featured speaker for the second webinar in the “WCL Faculty Speaks” Webinar Series. Professor Wiley is the Director of the Health and Policy Program at AUWCL. This webinar was moderated by Professor Jonas Anderson; Professor Wiley gave insight on the COVID-19 pandemic's effect on health law, including jurisdiction over response mechanisms during a crisis, the need for mandatory language governing the federal government’s responsibility, and predictions for court cases filed due to the pandemic. 

In any response to a crisis, the U.S. legal response is governed by the provisions of the Constitution and statutes. During the coronavirus response, we have seen how state and local governments hold the reins to control community mitigation measures, including social distancing policies, the requirement of face coverings, and capacity limitations in public spaces. However, the federal government has authority to issue guidance, provide disease surveillance, and restrict international and interstate travel. The federal government is the sole actor with sufficient resources and inter-jurisdictional coordination capabilities to ensure the ramp-up of widespread testing and contact tracing to safely ease social distancing restrictions. Federal statutes, however, provide this authority as permissive, rather than mandatory, so it is difficult to hold the federal government accountable for failing to adequately support state and local responses.

Attorneys across the United States anticipate, and have already seen, a large increase in the number of court cases filings stemming from the outcome of this crisis. Multiple civil liberty challenges have occurred, such as churches and gun shops forced to shutter, challenges based on abortion rights, where governors have eliminated medical capacity beyond emergency situations, and others related to businesses adversely affected by forced closures.

In addition to a health crisis, COVID-19 has led to highlight the need for social justice reform as pre-existing social inequalities are exposed. Pandemics tend to move along the social, economic, and racial fault lines that already exist in our society. As the pandemic has progressed, we have seen these disproportionalities become more apparent: the virus targets most lethally those with underlying chronic conditions, and many chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, are caused by environmental factors. In many cases, this includes living conditions, employment, and access to food and medical sources in the community. It is not enough to simply restrict movement of the general population through stay at home orders, but how we protect those who are essential workers, and often in lower wage jobs, such as grocery store workers, meat processing plant workers, and others, who are largely lower income and minority populations.