Currently, 37 states have HIV-specific, or communicable, contagious, infectious disease laws ranging from sentence-enhancement laws that do no criminalize a behavior but increase the sentence length when a person commits certain crimes, to reckless endangerment, and attempted murder, according to the CDC.
It seems reasonable to criminalize intentional exposure of others to COVID-19. However, we can draw on lessons from HIV-specific criminalization in the United States. A response that too broadly criminalizes COVID-19 would impose unfair infringements among those most socially and economically vulnerable, due to the vast disparities in healthcare, employment, and the criminal justice system.
Considerations include overly broad prosecutions for “knowing” exposure vs. intent to transmit. The creation of a stigma can also hinder public health efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. In the U.S. people of color would be more likely to experience negative outcomes in the criminal justice system. New Jersey introduced a bill that would make it a “terrorist threat” to threaten to infect another person with COVID-19 or another disease triggering a public health emergency. Because COVID-19 can be spread simply by breathing, criminalization would be a slippery slope indeed.
The reality is, the failures causing the spread of COVID-19 stem from leadership and planning, shortages of medical equipment and gear, and the politicization of basic public health advice and precautions, all of which influence the community and economic choices more than any individual’s decisions. Read this last sentence again because that’s exactly what Republicans have been doing.
Chicago native Lorraine Evanoff earned her degree in French from DePaul University then became a Certified Financial Manager. She worked as a finance exec in film production for seven years in Paris, then in Silicon Valley during the dot-com era, and later for various Hollywood production companies, notably as CFO of National Lampoon. She is currently living in Los Angeles with her husband.