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Debate over Constitutionality of Forceful Isolation of SARS Patients

Debate over Constitutionality of Forceful Isolation of SARS Patients

Posted April. 13, 2003 22:08,   


The government has promised to put any SARS-infected person living in South Korea under quarantine as a preventive measure. Anyone failing to comply with the order is to be put into an isolation ward by the police. Severe opposition however, is being voiced against the measure.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) announced its measure in an emergency cabinet meeting held Friday. If a SARS infected person is found, the NIH will request that the police assist in isolating the patient and any person who may have been in contact with the patient.

An NIH official confirmed yesterday, "Unless we swiftly isolate the patient and those who had contact with the patient, more people will fall victim to SARS. If the circumstances necessitate, we will ask for cooperation from the police."

The Police Department also verified that when asked by the NIH, they would help it secure custody of the patient. The law authorizes the police to prevent any imminent danger. Thus, once the NIH classifies a person as a threat, the authorities can step in and quarantine the infected person.

The Act on Epidemic Control does not explicitly provide any legal grounds for putting an infected patient and those suspected of infection under forceful quarantine. Therefore, many experts doubt the constitutionality of the recent measure.

In fact, the Act allows the authorities to isolate only those patients that contract diseases belonging to the first group (e.g. cholera and the plague) and to the third group (e.g. malaria). Other than those cases, a patient may elect to sign up for isolated treatment. Thus, there are no explicit provisions authorizing forceful quarantines.

Anther NIH official explained that "the Act imposes a duty on the government to protect and treat infected patients. We interpret the law authorizing us to forcefully put certain people under quarantine for the safety of society. We also believe the law gives us the authority to mobilize the police to protect the interests of society as a whole."

The NIH defines a "possibly infected person from contact" as a person who has traveled with a SARS infected person, lived with or assisted a SARS patient in a hospital, been exposed by secretion or body fluids of a SARS victim, and/or remained close to a SARS victim at work or school. If classified as such, the SARS infected person would have to be isolated for 10 days from the last day of contact with the SARS victim.

Under the definition, however, numerous people could be sequestered and would not be able to go about normal life during the isolation. Nonetheless, the government opposes any compensation for those quarantined.

A civil rights expert said, "In an emergency caused by an epidemic, it is legitimate to put patients under quarantine. It`s not a violation of human rights, I believe." "But," he continued, "if the police are to step in, the government has to prove unequivocally how and why the measure was necessary."

Jin Lee leej@donga.com