From the 1918 flu, Hurricane Katrina, to the H1N1 pandemic, history teaches that the poor and communities of color shoulder the greatest burden of disease, death, and loss both during and after public health disasters. It is quickly becoming clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is no different, with racial and ethnic minorities more than twice as likely to die from the virus as white people and with strikingly increased COVID-19 mortality rates in high poverty areas.
In July of 2020, the Ohio Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights held a series of hearings considering the state and federal responses to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Pandemic entitled Civil Rights and Equity in the Delivery of Medical and Public Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Ohio.
Visiting Professor Katharine Van Tassel testified as an invited panelist at these hearings, which was the second time she has contributed testimony in aid of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ work. The first time she testified was before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights itself in Washington, D.C. during its hearings in 2014 on hospital dumping of uninsured patients with mental health disabilities.
“My teaching career has always been highly student focused with the goal of providing students with valuable, resume-building experiences that teach not just what can be done to help the disadvantaged, but how students can use their legal education to become servant leaders who are agents of positive change with, and for, their communities,” Van Tassel said. She added that “both times that I have testified, I made sure that my health law students were integrally involved in performing the research for my written and oral testimony.”
During her testimony in July of 2020, Professor Van Tassel shared that the current threat of COVID-19 to public health make plain the need for coherent, practical state legal powers and strategies to prevent the spread of infectious diseases within or across state borders. Public health legal preparedness is a term born from this understanding and has engendered a new recognition of the essential role law plays in public health.
“Unfortunately, legal preparedness has fallen behind the movement toward general, structural readiness in the public health system,” Professor Van Tassel explained. “This neglect has the potential to undercut other achievements in both comprehensive public health disaster preparedness and day-to-day disease containment. The inadvertent result is a negative impact on public health and infringement on individual rights, both of which could have dire consequences.”