Pandemic: Building a Legal Concept for the Future
Washington University Global Studies Law Review (Vol. 20:611, 2021)
16 Pages Posted: 14 May 2021 Last revised: 13 Sep 2021
Date Written: May 12, 2021
No legal definition of a ‘pandemic’ is enshrined in any binding international law instrument. Instead, the official explanation of the term is found in non-binding guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO), and remains vague at best. This circumstance is partially the result of a lack of consensus amongst the medical and public health communities on common denominators. Considering the resonance of declaring a ‘pandemic’, the absence of a clear-cut definition arguably hampers the reactions by the international community of states. The current analysis addresses the definitional gap in a broader context, by examining past attempts to introduce clear-cut yardsticks for determining when a ‘pandemic’ actually begins. The paper argues that a legal definition of ´pandemic´ with both descriptive and normative elements would greatly benefit the international community by guiding action to counteract future health emergencies. To this effect, the contribution posits a series of basic considerations for future conceptual debates on when a ‘pandemic’ is occurring, and whether legal obligations for states and international institutions ought to follow.
Keywords: international health law, pandemic declaration, World Health Organization, covid-19, PHEIC
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