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Book Launch: Pandemic Ethics: From Covid-19 to Disease X

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Press release and an interview with Prof Dominic Wilkinson on the new book, Pandemic Ethics: From Covid-19 to Disease X, which he has co-authored with Prof Julian Savulescu.

Press Release: Are we ethically prepared for Disease X?

image of pandemic ethics book cover
Oxford University Press

1 May 2023

According to some estimates, there is more than a one in four chance in the next decade of another global pandemic. We don’t know whether this will be influenza, a coronavirus (like SARS and COVID), or something completely new. The World Health Organisation refers to this unknown future threat as “Disease X”.

Scientists are busy preparing. For example, the “100 day mission” involves the aim to develop a vaccine within 100 days of a new pandemic.

But we also need to be ethically prepared, say medical ethicists Professor Dominic Wilkinson, from University of Oxford, and Professor Julian Savulescu, from National University of Singapore, in a newly published book with Oxford University Press.

“Pandemics are fraught with ethical landmines”, writes Professor Wilkinson. “The scale of a pandemic means that we face awful choices. Many, many people become unwell, or vulnerable to illness at the same time. As we saw in COVID, we may not be able to treat everyone who needs a hospital bed, oxygen, a ventilator or a vaccine. We need to prioritise.”

“What is more, we may have to choose between the needs of those in our own country, and those overseas. Some of our deepest values conflict, for example our desire for personal freedom and need to protect the vulnerable.”

“During the COVID 19 pandemic, politicians said, ‘We need to follow the science’. But science can’t tell us whether we should have a lockdown, or mandatory vaccination. For that we need thoughtful, careful ethical analysis,” says Wilkinson.

“Pandemics raise the deepest ethical questions about the value of life, and how to weigh health against liberty. There is no simple formula.

“Modelling and policy aimed at one value in the current pandemic: minimizing death from COVID-19. But there are many values: avoid death from other causes, well-being and autonomy. How should these be calculated and weighed against each other?

“The risks presented by pandemics also affect different people differently. And policies place more burdens on some groups. How should the benefits and burdens be distributed, when they cannot be distributed equally? We were told, ‘We are all in this together’ and ‘No one is safe until everyone is safe’. These slogans obscure difficult ethical decisions which must be made and ought to be made transparently, ethically and responsibly.

“This book arms policy makers with some of the tools to make better decisions in the future,” says Professor Savulescu.

Savulescu and Wilkinson have assembled a group of international experts in philosophy, ethics, law and economics to review lessons from COVID-19 for future pandemics.

Some highlights

In the book, Professor Larry Gostin from Georgetown University criticises the way that global solidarity apparently collapsed during COVID-19 as countries prioritised their own citizens over all others. This contributed to the catastrophic global failure in vaccine roll-out with poorer countries experiencing prolonged delays in access. Philosopher Frances Kamm (Harvard) develops 12 proposals that may help debates about personal liberty in a future pandemic. She argues that even those with libertarian views should accept that relatively small harms can be imposed in order to save others lives. A group of economists and philosophers from the US and UK (including the London School of Economics) tackle the difficult trade-off between limiting the health impacts of a virus and maintaining economic activity. Authors from Brazil, Japan and India examine the intersection between politics and social inequality and identify some of the troubling consequences of decisions made during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. I wish you all the best in your New Brave World Building. If you are lucky maybe you will survive it ….

  2. Paul D. Van Pelt

    I would think this book could be sought after by dedicated medical professionals, whether they agree with it or find cause to disagree. Kamm’s twelve proposals ought to be of interest to ethicists and philosophers, if those proposals are as impressive as I imagine them being. Very glad to hear of this. I don’t believe complacency would be an option, should this forecast be as urgent as it sounds.

  3. Again I have to emphasize that we should not ask what covid is. We should ask who we are.

    Ulrich Beck in the 80’s talked about the risk society. His theory was deeply influenced by the tragedy in Cernobyl in 1986. Beck says that our society creates risks on which we reflexively react and in this way we create another risks. The nuclear powerhouse is built for the good. To produce energy. But it has also its risks. It behaves like natural element.

    The world wide web and social media are also for the good but they create risks. They spread false information. They spread panic.
    After all they make the communication more easy. But they also allow to limit the human right in very soft but massive way.

    To school closure, home office, on line registration for vaccination, information about government’s measure that change every day. All this is allowed due to the electronic media and communication. And just this is the face of pandemic or as you say “Disease X”.

    Your key sentence in the article is: “But science can’t tell us whether we should have a lockdown, or mandatory vaccination”.

    It is true. The life of society cannot be conducted by the science. Covid confirmed this very clearly. But if the scientists are not responsible, who then?
    The answer is simple: the politicians.

    And the politicians are elected by the voters. By us. So this is the point. The base for the pandemic measures is not only the technological progress
    but also the society mental status. In this sense we can also talk about the TENDENCIES. And these tendencies are either to freedom or to security.

    If we predict the Disease X it is clear that nowadays we prefer security. We decided to BUILD new world. Without threats.

    After years due to this preference it will turn out that we are poorer, more unhappy and more cruel. At this point
    we again return to freedom.

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