Morality and balance — a review of “The COVID-19 Pandemic: Ethical Challenges and Considerations”

March 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many unanswered questions. As we try to make sense of it, Dr Orla Dummond, senior research analyst at Trilateral Research, reflects on a thought-provoking book considering key ethical questions. 

The COVID-19 Pandemic: Ethical Challenges and Considerations edited by Eleftheria Egel and Cheryl Patton, successfully navigates issues of morality and balance which have troubled us during and since the onset of COVID-19. In particular, the right to vaccinate and the right to refuse vaccinations; the responsibilities of governments in a pandemic; and the moral responsibility of the media. A key highlight is the focus on frontline personnel and the insight into lived experiences. 

The book is well structured into five sections: 

  1. Narratives: The (Mis) Information Tightrope
  2. Management: Whose duties, whose rights?
  3. Lived Experiences
  4. Healthcare Personnel: fighting in the frontline and 
  5. Healthcare Management.

The media comes under the spotlight using the notion of a ‘Battle of Narratives’. Increased scepticism in information from official sources, the authors argue, may stem from a loss of trust in leadership and the media prior to the crisis. The use of technology and on-line forums facilitates distortion and falsification of information. Since social media platforms are corporations, they are not subject to the same regulatory rigour as governments in the protection of freedom of speech and expression. 

Daniel Capilla, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Trust is also discussed in the management and government section, in particular the need to trust those who decide which individual rights need to be relinquished during a crisis. Chapters about the relationship between states and their citizens challenge the reader to rethink popular narratives of the pandemic. Restrictions on individual liberties and the severe harms that lockdown policies caused are discussed. One chapter highlights censorship, competing scientific analysis, and how respected scientists felt unable to challenge the status quo. 

As a human rights lawyer, I was particularly drawn to the Lived Experiences section of the book. There I found narratives from across the globe, and visited New York, South Africa and Nigeria, to recall the onset of the pandemic and the detrimental impact on specific populations. For instance, how existing severe inequalities were exacerbated in South Africa and how a Community Action Network (CAN) was established to support poor communities. This stimulated ethical and moral dialogue about kindness and giving. Increased violations of human rights were described for Nigeria, such as an increase in domestic violence and the heavy-handed approach of Security Agents. In New York, the reader gets to know healthcare workers who face a scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE) and staff shortages. We see hospitals overwhelmed by an influx of COVID-19 patients, and the burnout, exhaustion and trauma of healthcare professionals on the front line.

Alberto Giuliani, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This theme continues in Healthcare Personnel: Fighting in the Frontline, exploring how at a time when the rest of the world was locked down, frontline workers were precariously dealing with the most unwell, often with a scarcity of PPE and working extended periods of time. These workers were placing their own health in jeopardy to serve the wider population. Here, we also engage with ethical considerations in relation to the COVID-19 vaccines, their distribution, incentivisation, administration and we contemplate the plight of older adults in care settings. 

Overall, the book helps us to unbox the main ethical concerns and considerations of the pandemic. As we are no longer in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, we should engage with these ideas to ensure that we are better prepared for the next pandemic or global crisis.