The Covid-19 pandemic: what are the ethical issues?

Professor Brad Hooker

University of Reading

The Covid-19 pandemic poses new worries, stresses, and questions. Very many of these new questions are biological, medical, economic, or logistical. Many possible answers to these biological, medical, economic, or logistical questions have ethical implications, which ought to be considered. Furthermore, some questions posed by the pandemic are immediately ethical ones. These immediately ethical questions, as well as the ethical implications of various possible answers to questions of other kinds, deserve communal consideration. Thus, Ethical Reading plans to mount a new community blog to discuss the ethical issues resulting from the pandemic.

Perhaps the very first question for this blog should be: what are the most pressing ethical questions thrown up by the pandemic? We can distinguish between backward-looking questions—such as ‘who exactly mishandled the response to Covid-19?’ and ‘why does the UK have fewer hospital beds per head of population than other countries in Western Europe?’—and forward-looking questions about how to deal with this or that problem bearing down on us. Backward-looking questions are morally important, but they are less pressing in practice than the forward-looking ones. So what are the forward-looking ethical questions that are most salient now?

Three possibilities are:

  1. If there are not enough respirators to go around, should they be given to people with the most years to live if they survive, or on some other basis?
  2. How much risk to themselves is it morally right to ask health-care workers to shoulder as the pandemic spreads?
  3. Should the treatment of those suffering with Covid-19 be the same across the country, or is variation by location morally permissible?

However, rather than launch into trying to address any these three questions, let us start by considering whether there are more important moral questions posed by Covid-19. If there are, we should address those instead.

Discussions work best if people are careful about what they say, if they are much more interested in discovering the truth than in impressing others and winning debates, and if they interpret one another in the most charitable way possible. Now is the time not for fighting but for working together, including in the discussion of ethical questions presented by the virus. In that spirit, please identify more important moral questions than the ones listed above, or say that you think these questions are a good set with which to begin.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks for getting this valuable conversation started, Brad.

    I also think it would be interesting to talk about the morality of the new rules and how people are responding to them.

    Some people are taking them very lightly, putting others at risk, but others are being very judgemental and making assumptions that might sometimes be wrong. For example someone might be shopping for three elderly neighbours, not stockpiling for themselves.

    There are lots of permutations and opportunities for lively conversation around this theme, and it might help us work through some of our personal worries and frustrations.

  2. Any exit strategy will also pose ethical and moral questions. Some suggest that schools should open first but there is clear that children can be hit badly by the virus just like adults, so should we expose them deliberately. Should we be asking managers to return to work first so that they can ensure their businesses survive and plan for a different future? There are even immediate practical questions such as, if a furloughed employee who works for a company that allows them to use company email for personal use checks their email are they then technically “working” and so cannot receive the furlough payments. Interesting times indeed. Clinton

  3. Thanks, Kathryn. While very many people are restraining themselves rigorously despite the hardships this brings, and many people (such as front-line healthcare workers) are behaving heroically, some people aren’t observing the restrictions, which enrages others, given the fear and frustration everyone feels. But judging whether a stranger is a hero or instead a free rider on the sacrifice and restraint of others is difficult, a difficulty illustrated by the fact that social media contains innumerable mistaken judgements. More generally, we mustn’t let social media create a surveillance society.

    And thanks, Clinton. The exit options pose tremendously tricky ethical questions. Ethical assessments of different exit options would be a great topic for a meet-up! Furlough issues are also a whole new ethical minefield, one which many people are trying to tiptoe through right now, even though new dangers and new routes seem to be appearing daily.

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