Pandemic Ethics

Video Series: (Un)fair Access to Covid-19 Treatment in Mexico?

Widespread corruption and racism in Mexico created extra hurdles for the development of Mexico’s recently published federal guidelines for deciding who gets to access scarce medical resources (e.g. ventilators in the case of Covid-19). Dr César Palacios-González (Oxford), who helped develop these guidelines,  talks about these challenges.

We’re All Vitalists Now

By Charles Foster

It has been a terrible few months for moral philosophers – and for utilitarians in particular. Their relevance to public discourse has never been greater, but never have their analyses been so humiliatingly sidelined by policy makers across the world. The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.

That might or might not be the morally right result. I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

I wonder what this new view of ourselves will mean for some of the big debates in ethics and law? The obvious examples are euthanasia and assisted suicide. Continue reading

Pandemic Ethics: Compulsory treatment or vaccination versus quarantine

By Thomas Douglas, Jonathan Pugh and Lisa Forsberg

Governments worldwide have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with sweeping constraints on freedom of movement, including various forms of isolation, quarantine, and ‘lockdown’. Governments have also introduced new legal instruments to guarantee the lawfulness of their measures. In the UK, the Coronavirus Act 2020 gives the government new powers to detain individuals in order to prevent them from infecting others.

Interestingly, one measure that recent legislative changes in the UK leave off the table, at least for the time being, is the use of compulsory medical interventions—whether treatments or vaccinations. We surmise, however, that once treatments or vaccines for Covid-19 become available, there will be political interest in making them mandatory, since this may allow for the quickest and safest route out of the lockdown. In the case of vaccines, there will be a need to ensure that enough people are vaccinated to confer herd immunity. There may also be an argument for mandating vaccination of people who have contact with many others, such as teachers, retail staff and health care workers. In the case of treatments, we might hope that widespread use of anti-viral therapies will lighten the burden on the NHS by reducing the number of infected individuals who require intensive care. And there may be a need to ensure that people take the treatment even after their symptoms have resolved, to reduce their infectiousness.

From a legal point of view, there are clear barriers to compulsory treatments and vaccinations in the UK. The right of individuals with decision-making capacity to refuse any medical intervention that involves interference with their bodies is, for instance, robust and well-established in English law. This right persists even when the individual’s reasons for refusing the intervention are bizarre, irrational, or non-existent, and when the refusal would certainly lead to her death. The individual’s right to make her own medical decisions, and in particular to refuse interventions that interfere with her body, also enjoys robust protection in human rights law.
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Contact-tracing apps and the future COVID-19 vaccination should be compulsory. Social, technological, and pharmacological immunisation

Written by Alberto Giubilini

Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities – Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

University of Oxford



Main point:

Lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 have so far been compulsory in most countries. In the same way, use of contact tracing apps should be compulsory once lockdown measures are relaxed. And in the same way, vaccination should be compulsory once the COVID-19 vaccine is available.

We can think of the lockdown as a form of ‘social immunization’, of contact tracing apps as a form of ‘technological immunization’, and of course of vaccination as pharmacological immunization. The same reasons that justify compulsory lockdown also justify compulsion in the other two cases.

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Video Series: Do Health and Social Care Workers Have a Moral Obligation to Keep Working if they Lack Protective Equipment?

This interview is now also available as a video on YouTube:

Pandemic Ethics: Extreme Altruism in a Pandemic

Written by Julian Savulescu and Dominic Wilkinson

Cross-posted with the Journal of Medical Ethics blog

Altruism is one person sacrificing or risking his or her own interests for another’s interests. Humans, like other animals, have a tendency towards altruism. This is usually directed to members of their own group. An example is donating a kidney to a family member. This is quite risky – it involves immediate risk of death from anaesthesia or post-operative complications, and long term risk of kidney failure.

But sometimes people are altruistic towards strangers.

Altruism often involves fairly small personal sacrifices. (For example, most people donate to charity, but in countries like the UK, it is typically only a tiny proportion of their income) Where someone can cause great benefit to another person at little or no personal cost, there is an ethical obligation for them to do so. This is the Duty of Easy Rescue. A whole movement has arisen called Effective Altruism which aims to ensure that altruistic acts do as much good as possible.

Altruism can also be extreme. Some people give up their entire livelihood to work overseas for aid agencies or charities. During a pandemic, health workers may take on significant personal risk to provide front-line medical care. In times of war, people may choose to literally give their life for others of their nation.

We can define extreme altruism as an act taken for the benefit of another that involves making large life-altering or life-threatening sacrifices or personal risks.

Society’s approach to extreme altruism is inconsistent. At times of obvious societal need, it encourages it (for example, clapping on the doorstep for ‘key workers’ is in order to offer our appreciation for their altruistic assumption of great risk) or even requires it by conscription of military personnel. At times of perceived lesser need, it is discouraged or even banned. For example, in normal times people are only allowed to take part in research, even if they do so with full knowledge and for no payment, if the risk of the research is minimal, and not if the risks are similar to everyday life. In some jurisdictions, altruistic kidney donations to strangers are banned.

It is not clear why extreme altruism should be limited to national emergency. If someone is competent, knows all the relevant facts, and is thinking clearly and choosing autonomously, they should be able to sacrifice their interests or even life for others. If someone is permitted to participate in highly risky personal activities for purely personal benefit (e.g. climbing Mount Everest, base jumping, or boxing) they ought to be permitted to at least take equivalent risks for the benefit of someone else (e.g. participating in research). Just as a rational, clear thinking person who is competent should be able to sacrifice their own life through suicide for any reason, they should be able to do this for the benefit of others.

We have argued at various points for extreme altruism in medicine. In one sense, there is a constant national emergency: we are all aging and slowly dying. There is a war against aging and death: we are fighting it with medicine. And people should be able sacrifice their interests or lives in this war. 

Extreme altruism extended to COVID-19

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Pandemic Ethics: Key Workers Have a Stronger Claim to Compensation and Hazard Pay for Working During The COVID-19 Pandemic Than The Armed Forces Do When on Deployment

By Doug McConnell and Dominic Wilkinson

Post originally appeared on the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog


While the general public enjoy the relative safety of social distancing, key workers are at a higher risk of both contracting COVID-19 and transmitting it to their families. This is especially the case for ‘frontline’ workers who are frequently exposed to the virus and may not have access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Tragically, many key workers have died of COVID-19 around the world already, including over 100 in the UK.

Although it is relatively rare for key workers to die from COVID-19, the risk of death is obviously much greater than one would usually expect in these roles and key workers clearly have good reason to be anxious. For ‘frontline’ workers, the distress is compounded by working in harrowing conditions where so many are dying alone. Furthermore, frontline workers have to take on the burdens of ensuring they do not transmit infections to their families, by moving in with patients, living in hotels, or maintaining rigorous social distancing in their own homes.

These atypical costs, risks, and burdens suggest that key workers are owed compensation in addition to their usual pay and a few instances of nationally coordinated applause. Continue reading

Pandemic Ethics: Why Lock Down of the Elderly is Not Ageist and Why Levelling Down Equality is Wrong

By Julian Savulescu and James Cameron

Cross-posted with the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog


Countries all around the world struggle to develop policies on how to exit the COVID-19 lockdown to restore liberty and prevent economic collapse, while also protecting public health from a resurgence of the pandemic. Hopefully, an effective vaccine or treatment will emerge, but in the meantime the strategy involves continued containment and management of limited resources.

One strategy is a staged relaxation of lockdown. This post explores whether a selective continuation of lockdown on certain groups, in this case the aged, represents unjust discrimination. The arguments extend to any group (co-morbidities, immunosuppressed, etc.) who have significantly increased risk of death.

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Guest Post: Pandemic Ethics. Social Justice Demands Mass Surveillance: Social Distancing, Contact Tracing and COVID-19

Written by: Bryce Goodman

The spread of COVID-19 presents a number of ethical dilemmas. Should ventilators only be used to treat those who are most likely to recover from infection? How should violators of quarantine be punished? What is the right balance between protecting individual privacy and reducing the virus’ spread?

Most of the mitigation strategies pursued today (including in the US and UK) rely primarily on lock-downs or “social distancing” and not enough on contact tracing — the use of location data to identify who an infected individual may have come into contact with and infected. This balance prioritizes individual privacy above public health. But contact tracing will not only protect our overall welfare. It can also help address the disproportionately negative impact social distancing is having on our least well off.
Contact tracing “can achieve epidemic control if used by enough people,” says a recent paper published in Science. “By targeting recommendations to only those at risk, epidemics could be contained without need for mass quarantines (‘lock-downs’) that are harmful to society.” Once someone has tested positive for a virus, we can use that person’s location history to deduce whom they may have “contacted” and infected. For example, we might find that 20 people were in close proximity and 15 have now tested positive for the virus. Contact tracing would allow us to identify and test the other 5 before they spread the virus further.
The success of contact tracing will largely depend on the accuracy and ubiquity of a widespread testing program. Evidence thus far suggests that countries with extensive testing and contact tracing are able to avoid or relax social distancing restrictions in favor of more targeted quarantines.

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Video Series: Is the Coronavirus Pandemic Worse for Women?

Dr Agomoni Ganguli Mitra talks about how pandemics increase existing inequalities in societies, and how this may result in even more victims than those from the disease itself. She urges governments and others to take social justice considerations much more into account when preparing for, and tackling, pandemics. This is an interview with Katrien Devolder as part of the Thinking Out Loud video series.
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