Duty in the time of epidemics: what China and Zimbabwe teach us

Sara E. Davies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In November 2002, a man with 'atypical pneumonia' treated in Foshan hospital, Guangdong Province, in the People's Republic of China, was the first known case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). However, it was not until April 2003 that the Chinese government admitted to the full scale of 'atypical pneumonia' cases infected with SARS, two months after the disease had rapidly spread across the world with initial infections in Hong Kong and Vietnam sourced to Guangdong. In 2008, Zimbabwe experienced one of the biggest outbreaks of cholera ever recorded. By February 2009, the disease had spread across all of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces and to neighbouring countries-Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique-causing thousands of infections amongst their populations. This article seeks to examine what duties the Chinese and Zimbabwe states had to protect their citizens and the international community from these outbreaks. The article refers to the findings of the International Law Commission's study into the role of states and international organisations in protecting persons in the event of a disaster to consider whether there is an international duty to protect persons from epidemics. The article concludes that both cases reveal a growing concept of protection that entails an international duty to assist individuals when an affected state proves unwilling or unable to assist its own population in the event of a disease outbreak.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)413-430
Number of pages18
JournalAustralian Journal of International Affairs
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • epidemics
  • International Law Commission
  • natural disasters
  • responsibility
  • sovereignty

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