In Constitutional Contagion: COVID, the Courts, and Public Health, Professor Wendy E. Parmet Argues Reform is Critical Before the Next Pandemic Strikes 


06.01.23 — Constitutional law has helped make Americans unhealthy, argues public health law expert Professor Wendy E. Parmet in her new book, Constitutional Contagion: COVID, the Courts, and Public Health (Cambridge University Press, 2023). Drawing from law, history, political theory and public health research, Constitutional Contagion explores the history of public health laws, the nature of liberty and individual rights, and the forces that make a nation more or less vulnerable to contagion.

In this groundbreaking book, Parmet documents how the Supreme Court departed from past practice to stymie efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic and demonstrates how pre-pandemic court decisions helped to shatter social contracts, weaken democracy, and perpetuate the inequities that made the United States especially vulnerable when COVID-19 struck. Looking at judicial decisions from an earlier era, Parmet argues that the Constitution does not compel the stark individualism and disregard of public health that is evident in contemporary constitutional law decisions. Parmet shows us why, if we are to be a healthy nation, constitutional law must change.

“I began this book to discuss the dramatic changes that were occurring in public health law during the pandemic. But my research led me to recognize that the threats that constitutional law posed to Americans’ health long preceded the pandemic. And they ranged far beyond decisions pertaining to public health regulations. Doctrines relating to freedom of speech, race discrimination, and voting rights, to name just a few, are all serving to undermine Americans’ health and magnify health inequities. This book shows how they do so and why the conceptions of liberty they purport to defend are needlessly thin and ahistorical,” said Parmet, recipient of the American Public Health Association Law Section’s 2022 Lifetime Achievement in Public Health Law Award.

Parmet’s previous books include The Health of Newcomers: Immigration, Health Policy, and the Case for Global Solidarity (co-author; NYU Press, 2017) and Ethical Health Care (co-author; Prentice Hall, 2005); Populations, Public Health, and the Law (Georgetown University Press, 2009); and she served as co-editor of Debates on U.S. Health Care (Sage Press, 2012).

Praise for Constitutional Contagion

“Constitutional Contagion is undoubtedly the single most important book on the outsized influence of the judiciary in the COVID-19 pandemic. Wendy Parmet has no equal in American public health law. Her book contains a nuanced explanation of how an increasingly aggressive conservative judiciary has curbed important public health powers during the pandemic. Professor Parmet has always fought for a careful balance between strong public health powers and sensitivity to privacy and liberty of citizens. We need to learn the lessons she is teaching, not just for COVID-19 but also for the next health crisis, which might occur sooner then we think. This book is a tour de force-essential reading for scholars and citizens who care about good public health governance.”
Lawrence Gostin - Georgetown University

“Parmet’s incisive analysis will be an invaluable resource to experts and nonexperts alike as we all work together to reconstruct a viable balance between individual liberty and collective action to protect the public’s health.”
Lindsay F. Wiley - University of California, Los Angeles

“This book confirms Wendy Parmet’s status as our leading interpreter of the judicial doctrines of public health — and our most powerful legal voice for recognizing the promotion and protection of public health as a defining purpose of government. Parmet clearly recounts the history and explains the importance of landmark cases, in a way that a reader does not need a law degree to understand or profit by.”
Scott Burris - Temple University

Constitutional Contagion is a compelling tour de force, and essential reading for anyone seeking to understand America’s fraught response to the COVID pandemic. No other scholar understands the legal and political conflicts better than Wendy Parmet. With clear, insightful explanation, Parmet shows us that thoughtful law and reasoned governance are possible even in the midst of a deadly pandemic. But to face a pandemic future, we must implement reforms now, rather than give in to the complacency that has so often followed serious outbreaks of contagious disease throughout our history.”
Polly Price - Emory University School of Law

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