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In pathbreaking Bok course, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students studied the law of pandemics

February 09, 2022

In “International Law and Pandemics,” students explored the role of international health law in the context of COVID-19.

This past fall as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, a group of University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students had the unique opportunity to study its unprecedented legal implications with Armin von Bogdandy, international law scholar, who taught “International Law and Pandemicsremotely from Germany as part of the Bok Visiting International Professors program.

Prioritizing diverse international perspectives

Through Bok courses, students engage with leading scholars from around the world in condensed, three-to-four-week courses on topics at the forefront of global legal scholarship. For students interested in pursuing careers in international law, Bok courses add a unique dimension to the Law School’s full array of global course offerings.

The course included contributions from von Bogdandy’s frequent academic collaborator, Pedro Villarreal, a Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute. Throughout the course, von Bogdandy and Villarreal emphasized and modeled the importance of respectful debate, as the two often have contrasting perspectives and opinions.

“Team-teaching is much more fun both for the professors and for the students, because there might even be an argument,” von Bogdandy said. “Me, I have a more theoretical interest, whereas Pedro is really deep into the nitty-gritty of public health. We have two different approaches, but they are complementary.”

Sonari Chidi L’22 echoed Professor von Bogdandy’s sentiment, underscoring the significance of being exposed to multiple global perspectives.

“Learning from international academics and legal scholars on an issue as inherently global as the COVID-19 pandemic was so valuable,” said Chidi. “We often forget how connected we are in this world. And in a connected world, diverse legal perspectives and multi-faceted legal solutions are key to not only understanding but solving the issues of our day. In addition, the professors each brought unique and invaluable perspectives from the global north and south, respectively, which broadened our perspectives and enriched our learning.”

Deanna Drenga L’22, who enrolled in the course while simultaneously studying abroad at the London School of Economics, chose it because she felt it would complement other international law courses she was taking.

“I would recommend Bok courses to any future student,” Drenga said. “They challenge you to delve into particular topics under international law that you may not have been able to closely study in prior courses, and the opportunity to learn from experts in these fields from all over the world should not be missed.”

International law and pandemics

Students enrolled in “International Law and Pandemics” spent three weeks learning to analyze international law through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was von Bogdandy’s hope that, through engaging with readings and participating in discussions, students would be able to develop knowledgeable opinions about contemporary systems of global governance, particularly in relation to the vital concern of public health.

“COVID-19 is a huge challenge for all of humankind,” von Bogdandy said. “If you’re an international lawyer, the obvious question is: What has been the role of international law in that respect? Did it help? Was it a problem? Was it even a failure?”

In addition to gaining an understanding of how international law currently works, students also considered how international law may transform in the future. Paramount to these conversations are the contemporary organizational paradigms that define international law; independent of COVID-19, some international lawyers question whether the world is moving away from global governance and toward multi-polar global powers.

“The most interesting part of the course … was talking about access to medicine and vaccine nationalism,” said Drenga. “The topics we covered are immediately relevant to our lives and to thinking about what might happen in the next few years. In class, we were challenged to think about creative solutions to the problems dominating headlines. The most difficult part was trying to come up with creative solutions to some of today’s most challenging and pressing problems.”

To von Bogdandy, this specific moment in international law presents an intriguing and multi-layered set of legal questions pertaining not only to COVID-19, but also to how one more broadly conceives the world.

“Because COVID-19 is such a calamity and so important, international health law might become a field of reference for the development of international law in general,” von Bogdandy said. “There is a lot of innovation in international health law at the moment that might tell us something about the general direction of international law.”

Beyond gaining familiarity with international health law specifically, students also learned and cultivated informed opinions about what von Bogdandy referred to as “evergreen” topics of international law, such as the extraterritorial reach of human rights law, the proper role of international organization, and the speed with which international governance bodies should act in times of crisis.

For von Bogdandy, who last visited the Penn about 10 years ago, the opportunity to teach a Bok course came at the perfect time. With Villarreal, he is working on a new book about the role of international health law in the COVID-19 pandemic, and in his opinion, “the best way to learn about something is to teach it.”

“When you want to write a book about a new topic, there’s nothing better than to discuss it with students, because you need to get your ideas very clear,” von Bogdandy said. “At the same time, you get surprising questions that make you think about aspects you hadn’t thought about.”

Other Bok courses at the Law School

In addition to von Bogdandy’s course, the fall’s Bok offerings included a second remote intensive seminar, “China and International Law” with Bok Professor Bing Bing Jia, one of the most prominent and influential scholars of international law in China.

This spring, the Law School is offering two in-person Bok classes: “The Export of UCC Article 9,” led by Louise Gullifer, Rouse Ball Professor of English Law at the University of Cambridge, and “Corporate Scandals,” co-taught by Bok Professor Katja Langenbucher, Professor of Private Law, Corporate and Securities Law at Goethe, and Jill Fisch, Saul A. Fox Distinguished Professor of Business Law.

Explore the Law School’s many opportunities for global learning.