Summary

Cases

The situation around the world evolves rapidly. For individuals like Brian and Diane, the ethical questions and challenges are different and constantly change. For instance, given her older age and general condition, Diane worries that she will not have access to a ventilator if she needs one. Brian wonders if the government is ethically justified in imposing strict public health measures. Both understand how ethically complex many decisions around COVID-19 are and empathize with physicians and policymakers who grapple with these decisions daily. As the disease continues to spread, they wonder whether their perspectives will need to change and realize that the field of ethics constantly evolves based on context.

Diane is afraid about what will happen if she tests positive for COVID-19. Given her age and other health conditions, would she not receive a ventilator over someone younger and healthier? What ethical frameworks to approach resource allocation could be used, especially during a public health crisis?

Brian has many friends and family with pre-existing health conditions. In addition, as part of his community service work in college, he visited a prison and worked on a literacy project. He remembers one prisoner in particular named Dan. Dan was in his mid-20s and suffered from type I diabetes. Brian wonders how this pandemic affects Dan and his ability to obtain his medications.

Diane's daughter is a respiratory therapist at a New York hospital now recommending that its healthcare workers wear their face mask for one week at a time. Her daughter wants to "do the right thing" but is nervous she will not see Diane for months. Diane wonders how many other healthcare workers are in similar situations, and what the "right thing" to do is.

Brian thinks back to his canceled trip and plans for after graduation. While he understands the importance of social distancing, he is unsure whether the government is ethically justified to impose such stringent public health measures. What are the ethical considerations in the field of public health, especially as they relate to infectious disease outbreaks?

Final Thoughts

We hope this module helped capture the ethical complexity of COVID-19. We recognize this module’s bias towards U.S. biomedical ethics and are working on additional supplemental materials that include additional frameworks prevalent throughout the world. Nonetheless, we think many of the ethical questions are universal, and we encourage you to think closely about the presented themes as the pandemic evolves.

We welcome your feedback on this module and on the curriculum overall. Please share it here.