Quarantine: Ethical Issues Surrounding a Necessity to Human Health

For a moment, imagine being sick with the worst illness you have experienced in your life. Your only wishes are to see your family, be in a comfortable place, and receive the care needed to recover.

With highly virulent and contagious diseases comes the fear of them spreading. Therefore, it’s often necessary for public health professionals to place pre-symptomatic individuals in quarantine to ensure that the disease doesn’t spread through the healthy population.

When considering the ethics involved in quarantine, it’s important to realize the difference between quarantine and isolation. Isolation is the separation of infected individuals from healthy people while quarantine involves the separation of people that have been exposed to a disease and are not yet symptomatic.


A Recent Instance of Quarantine 

After the awful Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, the world was on edge about any indications of the disease popping up again. According to the World Health Organization, Liberia had no cases for three months–that is, until a 15 year old boy tested positive for Ebola in late November of 2015.

Epidemiologists came quickly to the scene, knowing the ability of this disease to jump from person to person and the horrible symptoms it has. The WHO explains that 165 individuals that were in contact with the child were put into quarantine for 21 days (the incubation period for Ebola) in Montserrado County, Liberia. While these people weren’t showing symptoms of the disease, it was important to separate them for at least the incubation period of the virus to ensure it wouldn’t spread throughout the nation.

Authorities settling riots caused by a forced quarantine after a case of Ebola in Liberia, via NPR News.

Enforcing Quarantine 

According to the CDC, American health officials within the CDC have the right under federal law to detain, medically examine, and release individuals at their own discretion when under suspicion of carrying a communicable disease.

While detaining individuals is typical for a crime, innocent and sick humans must be separated, forcefully if needed, to prevent the spread of an illness they may be carrying. In America, it is the federal government’s job to monitor diseases coming into the nation and between states while state governments handle local quarantine events.


Ethical Concerns

The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics explains two considerations while drawing up plans for quarantine:

  1. Is the quarantine justified ethically?
  2. Will the quarantine be effective?

Many variables play into the decision, such as how virulent and contagious a disease is, how densely populated the area is, and the amount of people in contact with an infected individual needing to be quarantined.

Answering the two considerations above may help health professionals come to an ethical agreement, but an official with strong morals will find it hard to place potentially healthy individuals in a space suspected of having a harmful disease present.

No matter the circumstances, though, measures should be put into place to ensure the people placed in quarantine are treated with the upmost respect and empathy. Kaci Hickox, a nurse quarantined in New Jersey after treating Ebola patients, described to CNN the “inhumane” nature of the quarantine event.

According to NBC News, following the 21 day quarantine in a hospital, Hickox filed a lawsuit against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for false imprisonment, violation of due process and invasion of privacy. The quarantine incident was widely covered by the media and sparked a debate about the ethical foundations of quarantine.

A nurse, Kaci Hickox, put into quarantine after treating a young boy with the Ebola virus. Via University of Texas at Arlington



If you have comments or questions about the ethical issues surrounding quarantine or isolation events please leave a comment in the section below. 


  1. Hi, Matt–interesting post! What do you think has been more controversial in past situations involving quarantine: whether the quarantine should be implemented or whether the quarantine conditions are humane?


    1. I would say whether the quarantine should be implemented. This is because the policy makers must take into account the conditions inside the quarantine while making a decision. No person involved in a quarantine event is going to be happy about being detained without committing a crime or giving permission, so there must be good reason to put such a plan into play which can lead to some debate.


  2. This was a very intriguing blog post to read, in which there is an apparent issue with ethics on both sides. First, I was wondering what your personal viewpoint was on this controversial topic? I personally think that in regards to Ebola and other diseases that have the possibility to take lives the individuals should be quarantined. By quarantining the patients that could potentially have the disease it is not only helping the individual by offering health care just in case they have it but also it keeps other people from obtaining the disease which could potentially cause an epidemic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Although I argued both sides in my post, I tend to agree with you. The suffering of a few people could potentially save the lives of the masses. That being said, conditions within quarantine or isolation events should be mediated by humanitarians.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is very interesting. I had no idea that putting patients in quarantine was a controversial issue. I have just understood why it was being done and would never question it. I feel that if it saves lives, it is a good thing to do.


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