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American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics and Boston University School of Law




In public health practice, the concepts of health and safety are often conflated. However, protecting and promoting health is radically different from protecting and promoting safety. Since 9/11, the distinctions between health and safety have changed and are in the process of merging. In our terrorism-obsessed world, public health has been increasingly militarized and enlisted, often without protest, into the service of protecting the safety of the public and the security of the nation. But safety and security are the proper purposes of law enforcement and the military, not of public health. More importantly, using public health to combat terrorism is often counterproductive to the population's health, and undermines human rights. Using the Ebola epidemic of 2014, this Article suggests how the post-9/11 reframing of public health goals as including disaster preparedness and counterterrorism, and the new military metaphors we have adopted to describe public health, have deformed our public health agencies, and have made them less trusted by the public. In turn, these agencies are therefore less able to prevent and respond to new infectious diseases. The United States' response to Ebola gives us an opportunity to reconsider the merger of public health and public safety domestically and globally. This Article suggests that a deeper commitment to human rights, especially to the right to health, has the theoretical and practical strength to act as a countervailing force and refocus public health on the health of populations rather than on safety and national security.

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