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Ethical challenges/dilemmas in the wake of Coronavirus Pandemic

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Ever since its arrival, the impact of coronavirus has been devastating and unprecedented. Every aspect of life from day-to-day work, to socializing, to travel, to economy has been in a tailspin. As the crisis deepened, it raised questions about political leadership, public health infrastructure and also issues that challenged our ethical intelligence and moral commonsense.

The Pandemic tested the health workers with dilemmas that they had encountered only in medical textbooks as case studies. It pushed workers in unorganized sectors to choose between health on one side and wages on the other. Further, the development of vaccine will raise a more significant question of who will get the first shot, the frontline health professionals or the sick and vulnerable. These are tough times for an ethicist as these questions have no easy answer.

Doctor’s Dilemma

Italy, very recently, was so completely overwhelmed with coronavirus cases that its health system was groaning under the weight of steady stream of patients. And, at the same time, the Doctors were faced with challenges reminiscent of Bernard Shaw’s play “The Doctor’s Dilemma.” As the resources got stretched, the doctors had to make decisions about whom to treat first: Carlo Vitelli, a surgeon in Rome, said, “If you have a 99-year-old male or a female patient, that’s a patient with a lot of diseases. And you have [a] young kid that need[s] to be intubated and you only have one ventilator, I mean, you’re not going to … toss the coin.”

For the doctor on the spot, the decision of whom to treat first was a dilemma that has no easy answers. Putting things from a moral perspective, a utilitarian who believes in “greatest good for greatest numbers” will have no qualms about sacrificing severe cases to ensure the survival of patients having higher chances of therapeutic success. While a principled doctor will baulk at the prospect of sacrificing a patient due to his “imperative” (Deontology) belief in the principle of caring. Analyzing the question itself can be tedious, imagine how traumatic it can be to make decisions in real-time.

“If you have a patient on a ventilator and they have to be taken off — that is probably the most horrible of all decisions for a doctor or nurse,” said Emanuel, “is incredibly psychologically traumatic…”

Who should get the first shot?

Meet Dr Rathore, who is right now serving in a coronavirus hotspot, seeing him in his primary protective gear I can only imagine the risk he and other frontline health workers are taking. As of now, doctors and patients alike are waiting with bated breath for the results of vaccine trials and positive therapeutic intervention. But when the vaccine becomes available, a larger question arises as to who should be getting the first shot, Doctors or the patients. The problem is similar to the earlier ethical question of treatment access. Should it go to health professionals who have high utility value or to vulnerable patients with little or no utility value?

It is not the development of a vaccine that is the challenge, but it is the distribution of vaccines that can raise some ethical dilemmas. The question of distribution gets further complicated when richer countries who are investing in the development of the vaccine corner and horde the vaccine for their citizens at the cost of citizens from low-medium income countries. Interestingly, Bill Gates has suggested a way out for distribution dilemma, and that is, the idea of Global Public good (GPG).

Are you okay with Digital Surveillance?

Recently Kerala Police started using digital surveillance technology (Geofencing) to keep track of quarantined individuals. Geofencing uses cell phone tower locations and GPS for tracking a person’s location, thereby allowing police officials to keep track of individuals movement. Kerala was not the first to lean on digital technology; China & Russia used facial recognition in their attempt to contain the virus.

With the virus becoming more virulent, governments world over are resorting to contact-tracing technology as a containment mechanism. Along with the governments, Google & Apple are also preparing to embed surveillance features into their devices, thereby raising privacy concerns and data security issues. The more significant question is should citizen’s privacy interests must be compromised (although briefly till the Pandemic lasts) in the name of public health concerns. Collectively as citizens, we all need to agree on how much and what kinds of digital surveillance is acceptable in support of public health concerns.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of House of Commons and co-founder of an investment firm

“Coronavirus Profiteering”

As the world economy reels under the impact of coronavirus, there have been reports of hedge funds making windfall profits. Individuals such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman had no qualms about using the coronavirus pandemic to rake in earnings albeit legally. Nobody can question the actions of the investment firms and the hedge funds on technical and legal grounds, but what they did seems morally jarring to the common man.

Reacting to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s actions, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor (UK), said: “This attitude is about as sick as it comes. Profit-seeking from people’s suffering is nearly as low as you can get.”

The more significant point is, legitimate profit is acceptable but profiteering, however lawful, during a crisis somehow runs contrary to our moral common sense. Wondering where do you all stand on this issue of “profiteering in a crisis.” Any answers!

Economy or Life

In last one week, the US has witnessed a spate of protests demanding the opening of the economy, and at the same time, there were counter-protest by the frontline health workers for continuing the lockdown. The moral question confronting the policymaker is the choice between“Economy or Life.”In other words, the issue at hand is should lockdown be maintained, as demanded by the health professionals, to protect the vulnerable or open the economy to ensure that “cure doesn’t become worse than the disease.”

Falling for utilitarian logic of “majority benefit,” is very tempting, but when it comes to matters of life and death, utilitarianism sounds like a controversial moral choice. Life is not a utilitarian thought experiment where you can justify sacrificing one life for saving five lives. The very notion of harming an innocent individual is morally abhorrent to most of us, no matter what our ethical position is. This question of economy v/s life is becoming a “real test of our humanity & sense of justice” as on one side is the livelihoods and on the other is life.

With every passing day, the pandemic has become a challenge to our deep-seated moral values and ethical traditions waiting to see how we stand up and respond to the challenge.

Look forward to your comments or the least is a drop in greeting!!


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