COVID has killed 5,600 Australians this year and the pandemic is not over yet. Ethics can shape our response

COVID has killed 5,600 Australians this year and the pandemic is not over yet - ethics can influence our response

Utilitarianism would lead us to focus our efforts on increasing global vaccine coverage. Photo credit: Shutterstock

It’s hard to ask, but how many deaths should Australia accept from COVID in 2022?

The World Health Organization says there were almost 15 million more deaths worldwide in 2020-21 due to the pandemic.

Deaths have been rising in Australia, with more than 5,600 so far this year and hundreds a week.

Some epidemiologists, including Mike Toole of the Burnet Institute and other public figurescriticize that little attention is paid to these deaths.

Public health officials are focused on hospitalizations, which remain relatively low, and the case fatality rate (the proportion of those with the disease who die), which is falling, in part due to high immunization coverage. So governments are easing the remaining restrictions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday that any COVID death is a “terrible loss” but Australians want to “move on”.

Do we have the right balance from an ethical point of view?

Our ethical responsibility

COVID policy and ethical decision-making are challenging and there is room for differing views. But there are three areas of responsibility that we should focus on.

First, voters deserve to know in advance of the election where each party stands, such as B. their intended policy response to an increase in deaths (possibly caused by a new virus variant). There must also be a review of the knowledge gained.

Second, we should all consider what we are personally willing to do for the wider community. Getting that booster shot or having your children vaccinated can have both personal and social rewards.

Third, our community has vulnerable people for whom infection could be a death sentence. When we see someone wearing a mask and carefully social distancing, we should respect their efforts. Especially if you have any signs that you might be infected, take extra care not to expose others.

Simply put, the pandemic is not over and we will continue to need to rely on each other.

Questions of political and personal ethics

When considering how many COVID deaths are acceptable, we need to distinguish the various ethical issues we face.

One of them is the question of politics. What should our governments do in response to the high death toll? Should they apply a new mix of vaccine/booster orders, lockdowns, contact tracing, travel restrictions, mask regulations and the like?

Then there is the question of our own personal conduct. We can all make efforts to limit the risk of transmitting the virus to others who may be at risk.

Ethics is a higher standard than the law, and not every moral obligation should be enforced by government.

Guidance from Ethical Theory: Utilitarianism

It may seem reasonable that we should do everything in our power to prevent harm to vulnerable people. But the established ethical theories oppose this intuitive idea.

The theory of utilitarianism focuses solely on consequences. Utilitarianism challenges us to maximize the overall happiness of all sentient beings. While this approach can be very challenging, it would resist a rigorous response to COVID for two reasons.

First, utilitarianism places no particular obligation on fellow citizens. Living in a wealthy country, our best strategic investment is usually to think outside the box and reduce extreme poverty around the world. This focus would be the same for COVID, for example by directing our efforts to increase global vaccine efforts.

Second, utilitarianism will find that most of the COVID deaths are elderly. Utilitarianism values ​​happiness equally—whether it’s a child or a 90-year-old.

But saving the life of a 90-year-old will likely only bring a few years of happier existence. Saving a child’s life would likely yield more than 20 times that number. In technical terms (as used by the World Health Organization), saving the child results in a huge net gain in “adapted life years” (DALYs).

For both of these reasons, in the face of widespread vaccination limiting the damage from COVID in Australia, the utilitarian would resist making tremendous efforts to curb local deaths.

Guidance from ethics theory: duties and rights

Another common ethical approach is to focus on actions rather than results. With these duty-based approaches (the technical term is “deontological”), the end does not justify the means.

Contrary to utilitarianism, duty-based approaches would allow us to prioritize natives. They would also be careful to distinguish between young and old as all life is equally valuable.

Duty-based approaches state that we should avoid harming others and be generous to those in need.

However, because duty-based approaches value things like freedom, responsibility, and integrity, they limit those duties.

Widespread commitments to save others undermine the space for people to pursue their chosen callings, shape their own diverse life plans, and nurture close relationships.

Consider a comparison

Both ethical theories are consistently consistent in treating COVID with other threats to life and well-being. That makes sense.

Consider one of the leading causes of death in Australia: cancer. Australia applies many policy responses to this ongoing threat. We ban asbestos and tax cigarettes. We publicly fund medical research and healthcare. We run campaigns to slide, slop, slap.

But we could do more. We could increase taxes and put more resources into research and treatment. We could ban tobacco altogether. We might even ban going to the beach during high UV times!

Instead, and following the ethical theories considered above, we focus our efforts on effective guidelines and avoid penetrating too deeply into people’s personal decision-making.

Reasonable ethical responses to COVID will behave similarly. In terms of both public order and personal choices, we must remember that the pandemic is not over yet. As with other serious threats to our lives and well-being, we will all continue to have a role to play.

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Citation: COVID has killed 5,600 Australians this year and the pandemic is not over yet. Ethics can shape our response (2022, May 19), retrieved May 20, 2022 from

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