Lessons from the Plague Year

While humankind will be learning from the pandemic for years to come, none of us can ignore the numerous ethics issues with which we have been presented. The ethical implications of the pandemic in the United States and abroad are staggering.

From the beginning, problems arising from social disparity became painfully obvious, as the virus affected different populations disproportionately. During the first wave of the pandemic, some people could work from the safety of their homes. Others lost their jobs as restaurants closed and leisure travel ground to a halt. Others had no choice but to work in situations in which they were continually exposed to the virus. People of color had higher rates of infection and death. The vaccines, when made available, were distributed to the whitest and the wealthiest nations first.

Later, as the virus surged and resurged, the supply of ICU beds, experimental treatments, and ventilators dwindled. The scarcity of medical resources forced hospital leadership to decide whether patients over a particular age should be given palliative care only. They had to decide if it made ethical as well as economic sense to remove the most seriously ill patients from ventilators and free them up for others who looked more likely to survive. At times, the situation had become so dire that some healthcare personnel were comparing their working environment to a MASH unit.

Different nations took very different approaches as the contagion raged within their borders. Some countries, like India and China, mandated draconian nationwide shutdowns and curfews. Other countries, like Argentina and Sweden, acted as if there was no pandemic at all. The United States took no coherent approach. The federal government delegated healthcare decisions to the states, many of which in turn left healthcare decisions up to individual businesses and people. While some leaders within the federal government verbally encouraged social distancing and wearing masks to limit COVID spread, others encouraged large crowds for campaign rallies, met face-to-face in legislative sessions, and held holiday parties, thereby sending a message by their actions in sharp contrast with the government’s verbal message. At the personal level, behaviors ranged widely, from extravagant tipping out of sympathy for service workers to screaming abuse at store clerks who tried to enforce mask requirements imposed by their company, city, or state.

The list of COVID-related ethical issues could go on for pages, and several of the cases in this year’s ethics bowl address a few of them. In the United States, we generally expect colleges and universities to contribute to the public good by producing research useful to the community and to the advancement of knowledge. We also expect them to prepare students for active and responsible engagement as citizens in a diverse world. How well are you, as college students, being equipped to deal with these issues now and for future global emergencies?

Above and beyond a school’s responsibility to provide a safe environment and carry on its normal job of education, the question arises as to whether the pandemic has given higher education an increasedresponsibility for helping students and the community recognize, analyze, and actively address the ethical issues that arise from the pandemic, such as those mentioned above. If so, we might expect higher education to meet that responsibility by adjusting coursework, changing the nature of campus life, shifting the direction of some research, and forming new community partnerships. Some would argue that this sort of activism is not appropriate for higher education. The traditional role of educators is to educate, after all, not to shift direction with every crisis, even one as dire as the current pandemic. Any attention given to COVID-19 is attention taken away from other subjects.

From the 2021 National Ethics Bowl. Prepared by

Robert Boyd Skipper: Chair, Case Preparation Committee
Robert A. Currie
Deni Elliott
Cynthia Jones
Heather Pease