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Pandemics and public health

By Peter Curson - posted Tuesday, 15 September 2020

There is little doubt that maintaining our publics’ health requires a deft balancing act – of balancing the overall wellbeing of all Australians against the individual’s rights and freedoms. This is an exceedingly difficult task even at the best of times because there is often a basic conflict between the two.

In normal times when our society is not threatened by pandemics such as coronavirus, to achieve this balance still remains difficult. In times of crisis such as we have experienced over the last six or so months it often becomes almost impossible.

It is interesting how Australia still struggles with this basic dilemma – of how a country committed to the supremacy of civil liberties and rights and sensitive to discrimination, can reconcile the conflict between individual rights and the common good.


The coronavirus pandemic also illustrates how critical is the need for cooperation between all levels of government and how easy it is for states to simply shrug their shoulders and elect to go their own way. There is nothing new in this and our history is littered with examples of lack of cooperation, self-interest, over-reaction and outright antagonisms.

Why are we surprised as to how some states have reacted to protect themselves during the present coronavirus outbreak? Look back at our history. There are countless examples of how states rights and trade interests intersected with pandemics and epidemics, fostered state-commonwealth rivalries and made the overall achievement and maintenance of national public health a difficult if not impossible undertaking.

The 1908 Quarantine Act clearly gave the commonwealth power over internal quarantine in all states yet in the following year the federal government stated that it was not the commonwealth’s intention to make use of such powers when infectious disease broke out in any state.

Yet in 1913 when smallpox broke out in Sydney, Cumpston the new Federal Director of Quarantine unilaterally declared an area of 15 miles around Sydney’s GPO a formal quarantined area without any reference to the state government.

Somewhat like today this commonwealth decision produced a violent public reaction where people and the state government were highly critical of the commonwealth’s intervention.

The 1919 Flu pandemic provides another example of how when faced by a major pandemic the commonwealth and all states parted company and simply went their own way despite all states agreeing to a commonwealth plan in late 1918 whereby the commonwealth would assume total responsibility for the management of the pandemic if it reached Australia.


There is also little doubt how epidemics and pandemics can easily sweep away the façade we erect around our lives and reveal much about how we as individuals and our governments as over-lords regards death and disease and how we and they respond to such traumatic events.

Pandemics such as coronavirus reveal much about human reaction when confronted by life-threatening events. They also reveal much about how Government’s struggle to control and contain such outbreaks and in many ways fail to fully understand how ordinary people regard fear and risk in their lives.

As coronavirus demonstrates, pandemics consist of two major dimensions.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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