Whether people should wear masks was one of the first ethical questions posed by the pandemic. Photo by Tai S Captures/Unsplash
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up some of the biggest ethical challenges, including lockdowns and the allocation of scare resources like ventilators. Adam Spence and Will Wright report on how philosophy helps answer these questions.
We should give priority to the young and healthy, parents of dependent children, essential workers and the socio-economically disadvantaged.
The most immediate and uneasy ethical questions of this pandemic have centred on the life-and-death decisions at hospitals to treat certain patients to the exclusion
ANU philosopher Dr Ben Bramble explores these and other big ethical questions in his new book, Pandemic Ethics.
“When hospitals reach capacity and there aren’t enough ventilators, society faces the seemingly impossible task of choosing who receives the very best treatment available and who doesn’t – in essence, choosing who lives and who dies,” Dr Bramble says.
“What is the ethical way of doing this?”
Dr Bramble proposes a points-based system for allocating ventilators and other life-saving resources during the COVID-19 pandemic, in a bid to minimise deaths in overburdened hospitals and the knock-on effects of those deaths.
“We should give priority to the young and healthy, parents of dependent children, essential workers and the socio-economically disadvantaged,” Dr Bramble says. “The roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines raises similar issues
about whom to prioritise given scarcity. Here, priority should be given to essential workers, others who cannot work from home, and vulnerable groups that cannot adequately shelter.”
Dr Bramble cautions against using such an approach in healthcare systems outside of extraordinary times such as pandemics.
“Ideally, healthcare should be resourced so that everyone has proper access to it,” he says.
The question of whether to lockdown whole cities or hotspot areas has been one of the most vexing for governments around the world, including in Australia.
When considering a lockdown, governments must balance the immediate need to protect people from contracting the virus with the very real costs to the economy and society,” Dr Bramble says.
“The choice is made harder by the uncertainty about when vaccines will become available, and what kind of immunity can be expected in the community both with and without vaccines.”
Dr Bramble concludes lockdowns of varying degrees, depending on the severity of the outbreaks, are the only sensible courses of action until the spread of the virus is controlled.
“Prematurely relaxing lockdowns does not result in economies surging back,” he says.
Getting the right policy balance on lockdowns is crucial, Dr Bramble says.
“Good government policy that supports those affected by lockdowns can help to mitigate its negative effects, while measures such as mask wearing, contact tracing and testing can support the relaxation of measures and bring back normality sooner,” he says.
As devastating as COVID-19 has been, society is incredibly lucky that this virus has not been worse, Dr Bramble argues.
“This pandemic has been a wake-up call to potentially even worse pandemics, not to mention the spectre of climate change.” he says.
Pandemic Ethics by Dr Ben Bramble is available as an open access book online at philpapers.org. The Spanish translation of the book by Mexican philosopher Roberto Parra Dorates is also available from the same website.