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The Growing Importance of Public International Law During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of changes in policies. On a national scale, individual countries have developed a set of regulations to mitigate the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease. Countries imposed travel bans, lockdowns, prohibited large gatherings, etc. These changes have been apparent, although different, across countries.

The effects of the pandemic can be seen in politics, economies, and social aspects of every country as well. Throughout the year, the world has seen a massive decline in the economy—a decline that is reportedly worse than the depression. National governments were faced with problems that seem impossible to solve. In these times, people found the courage to stand up for their rights, as major protests broke out in different parts of the world.

The pandemic has brought issues such as human rights, peace and security, and finance to countries across the globe. Consequently, these are issues that concern Public International Law. However, the biggest concern in these times is health.

The Role of the World Health Organization (WHO)

As the global health institution, WHO’s role during the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial. According to the United Nations (UN), the following are the most important functions and contributions of WHO in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Helping the COVID-19 response of countries. WHO released a COVID-19 Strategic Preparedness Response Plan. It provides countries with actions and resources to aid them in their health responses. They also collaborate with governments via their offices all around the globe.
  • Debunk myths by providing reliable information. The spread of myths about the COVID-19 disease has become prevalent on the internet. As a response, WHO provides reliable information backed by research. The agency spreads the information all over the internet and social media through the help of massive tech companies.
  • Developing vaccines. At the start of the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, WHO began its initiatives to search for a vaccine. They gathered 400 researchers, conducted a “Solidarity Trial” with 90 countries, and worked with scientists, funders, and manufacturers to search for a vaccine quicker.

International Health Regulations (IHR)

The International Health Regulations (IHR) is a set of rules for the signatory nations, aiming to “improve the detection and reporting of potential public health emergencies worldwide.” It encompasses the protection, detection, reporting, and assessment of potential public health concerns. As a treaty, it is legally binding among participating countries.

The IHR requires countries to report any public health concern that may become an emergency. The countries have to collaborate on decision-making regarding these concerns, especially emergencies.

Acknowledging the ease of transportation today, the IHR also aims to mitigate the spread of a potential health emergency. Because of this, the IHR specifies travel restrictions and regulations for ports, airports, and other modes of transportation.

The IHR has evolved after a series of SARS viruses. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a true test of its regulations and limits. While some analyses have pointed out the disparities within these regulations, the IHR has proven to have played a significant role in mitigating the virus’ spread.

Because of these rules, countries could detect the virus early and report it to the international community. It has also contributed to the health protocols that were put in place.

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Public International Law in the Time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a challenge for public international law as each country fight to survive. There are questions about human rights in relation to widespread quarantine and vaccinations. In relation to the IHR, critics have questioned the extent of the enforceability of these rules.

Throughout the years, public international law has garnered a reputation of “lacking teeth.” Even then, this branch of law has a way to make signatory countries accountable. The UN has international courts that arbitrate conflicts within countries. Member countries who are in the council may undertake action to cause member countries to follow the law or enforce a ruling.

In general, public international law is a nuanced topic. It is constantly evolving as the world experiences new and more unique challenges. As it evolves, lawyers have to keep up with their knowledge as well. Whether they are independently practicing or from a firm such as Duxton Hill Chambers (Singapore Group Practice), they have a duty to help in understanding this branch of law.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO and the IHR have helped the countries mitigate the spread of the virus. The WHO has also provided information and done initiatives to roll out vaccines as soon as possible.

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