Public Health and Privacy in the Pandemic

Mark A. Rothstein, JD


Am J Public Health. 2020;110(9):1374-1375. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


The fundamental ethical, legal, and policy challenge of public health is balancing public and individual interests, often conceptualized as the conflict between utilitarianism and libertarianism. During the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic, this struggle has involved the imposition of extraordinary levels of government-mandated social distancing to protect public health followed by impassioned efforts to lessen these constraints in the interests of individual liberty and economic renewal.

The same type of conflict exists between individual interests in health privacy and public health interests in the collection, use, and disclosure of health information. The COVID-19 pandemic presents these issues in a unique way because it is the most deadly pandemic in more than a century and new technologies permit an unprecedented level of information collection, aggregation, analysis, and dissemination.