Book Review: Public Health Crisis Management and Criminal Liability of Governments: A Comparative Study of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Public Health Crisis Management and Criminal Liability of Governments: A Comparative Study of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Edited by Michael Bohlander, Gerhard Kemp & Mark Webster. New York: Bloomsbury, 2023. xii, 368 p. Includes preface, list of contributors, abbreviations, and index. ISBN 9781509946310 (hardcover) $180.95; ISBN 9781509946327 (ePUB) $162.85; ISBN 9781509946334 (PDF) $162.85.

Reviewed by Danielle Noonan
MLIS Graduate
University of Western Ontario

Public Health Crisis Management and Criminal Liability of Governments opens with Jean Edmond Cyrus Rostand’s famous quotation from his 1938 book Thoughts of a Biologist: “Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a God.” This quotation is ultimately about power and privilege, and Public Health Crisis Management and Criminal Liability of Governments examines the ways in which various governments possessed and exercised their powers and privileges in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. While an ordinary person faced penalties if they breached COVID-19 restrictions, this book asks the question of what penalties or sanctions governments might face.

The book conveniently offers a table of contents, a list of contributors, and a list of abbreviations used in the text. Following an introduction and one chapter outlining the emergence and global spread of SARS-CoV-2, the book is a comparative examination of 13 countries’ responses: Brazil, England, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, the People’s Republic of China, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States. The final chapter provides a summary and considers responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to crimes against humanity.

Each contributor begins their chapter with a contextual introduction followed by a constitutional, legal, and policy overview. Within the introductions, contributors comment on specific constitutional and legal principles regarding the criminal liability of high-ranking government and public officials, the scope of responsibility and areas of tolerated risk of each jurisdiction, the impact of immunities, and prosecutorial matters.

Discussions on causation follow the contextual overviews. Most chapters include comments on general causation principles, such as thin skull scenarios. Some chapters also include discussions on the structure of homicide offences and assault, aggravated assault, and serious bodily harm offences. Most contributors examine murder and manslaughter, offences related to actions that cause serious bodily harm, offences regarding unborn fetuses, interrupting the courses of viable pregnancies, and failure to render assistance. Following this, contributors discuss the crime of epidemic alongside crimes against humanity. Sections on defenses, justifications, and excuses follow the discussions of the crimes. Each chapter concludes with discussions on corporate criminal liability, forms of participation, attempts and sanctions, sentencing, punishment, reparations, and restorative justice. All within the context of answering the question of, during the initial stages of the pandemic, “to what extent did senior government officials cause death of serious illness that otherwise would not have occurred had it not been for the officials’ conduct?” (p. 2) and what is their criminal liability?

Public Health Crisis Management and Criminal Liability of Governments may not be directly applicable to practitioners in Canada due to the omission of research regarding the Government of Canada’s response to COVID-19; however, they may find the book worth consulting for a global comparison of the effects of COVID-19 and for analyses of other jurisdictions’ responses to the pandemic. There are a variety of articles on healthcare liability during COVID-19, but none from this perspective.

One challenge with the text was the complex language, which many readers may struggle with. In addition, the levels of detail provided varied widely, with some chapters featuring vague and general discussions while others went into more depth.

Ultimately, legal practitioners or researchers may wish to consult this book for the abundance of information and resources cited. As the only text of its kind, Public Health Crisis Management and Criminal Liability of Governments serves as an introductory global comparative law treatise on COVID-19 responses and the criminal liability of governments.

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