3 moral virtues necessary for an ethical pandemic response and reopening


3 moral virtues necessary for an ethical pandemic response and ...

The health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are not equally felt. From the United States to Brazil and the United Kingdomlow-wage workers are suffering more than others and communities of color are most vulnerable to the virus.

Despite the disparities, countries are reopening without a plan to redress these unequal harms and protect the broader community going forward. Our ethics research examines the potential for using virtues as a guide for a more moral coronavirus response.

Virtues are applied morals – actions that promote individual and collective well-being. Examples include generosity, compassion, honesty, solidarity, fortitude, justice and patience. While often embedded in religion, virtues are ultimately a secular concept. Because of their broad, longstanding relevance to human societies, these values tend to be held across cultures.

We propose three core virtues to guide policymakers in easing out of coronavirus crisis mode in ways that achieve a better new normalcompassion, solidarity and justice.

1. Compassion

Compassion is a core virtue of all the world’s major religions and a bedrock moral principle in professions like health care and social work. The distinguishing characteristic of compassion is “shared suffering:” Compassionate people and policies recognize suffering and take actions to alleviate it.

As the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville said, compassion “means that one refuses to regard any suffering as a matter of indifference or any living being as a thing.”

Individual acts of compassion abound in the coronavirus crisis, like frontline health care professionals and neighbors who deliver food, among other examples.

Compassion and solidarity on display at New York’s Elmhurst Hospital, during the April peak of the city’s coronavirus outbreak. Noam Galai/Getty Images

Some pandemic-era policies also reflect compassion, such as regulations preventing evictions and expanding unemployment benefits and giving food aid to poor familes.

A compassion-guided reopening aimed at preventing or reducing human suffering would require governments to continually monitor and alleviate the pain of their people. That includes addressing new forms of suffering that arise as circumstances change.

2. Solidarity

In a global pandemic, the actions people do or don’t take affect the health of others worldwide. Such shared emergencies require solidarity, which recognizes both the inherent dignity of each individual person and the interdependence of all people. As United Nations officials have emphasized, “we are all in this together.”

Public health measures like stay-at-home orders, social distancing and wearing masks reflect solidarity. While compliance in the United States has not been universal, data indicate broad approval for these measures. A new study found that 80% of Americans nationwide support staying home and social distancing and 74% support using face coverings in public.

To achieve these acts of solidarity, the leaders most praised in their countries and abroad – from U.S. National Institutes of Health director Dr. Anthony Fauci to New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern – have relied primarily on moral persuasion, not threats of punishment.

By delivering clear information, giving simple and repeated behavioral guidance, and setting a good example, they’ve helped convince millions to take personal responsibility for protecting their community.

Face masks signal that wearers care about protecting others around them. Islam Dogru/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

3. Justice

Justice focuses on the fair distribution of resources and the social structures that enable what the Dutch philosopher Patrick Loobuyck has called a “condition of equality.”

Justice-oriented policies are necessary for a moral reopening because of the pandemic’s disproportionate health and economic impacts. The evidence clearly shows that communities of colorlow-income populationspeople in nursing homes and those on the margins of society, such as homeless people and undocumented immigrants, are hardest hit.

Justice-oriented policies would aim for equitable balancing of necessary pandemic resources. That means directing testing and health equipment toward vulnerable communities – as identified by COVID-19 tracking data and risk factors like housing density and poverty – and ensuring free, widespread vaccine distribution when it becomes available.

In the U.S., economic justice will also require aggressively investing in minority-run businesses and poorer areas to guard against further harm to owners, employees and neighborhoods.

Similarly, all American school children have lost critical classroom hours, but lower-income children have been disproportionately damaged by remote learning in part due to the digital divide and loss of free lunch programs. Justice would demand channeling additional resources to the students and schools that need them most.

A moral reopening

Using virtues to guide social policies is an old idea. It dates back at least to the Greek thinker Aristotle.

Social distance stickers to prepare Nepal’s empty Tribhuwan International Airport for reopening. Narayan Maharjan/NurPhoto via Getty Images

New Zealand is a good example of virtuous pandemic policymaking, even considering its advantages in having wealth, low density and no land borders. Its coronavirus response included not only aggressive public health measures but also a well articulated message of being united in the COVID-19 fight and recurring government payments so workers did not have to risk their health for their job.

Note that it isn’t enough to apply just one virtue in a crisis of this magnitude. Policies built on compassion, solidarity and justice should be deployed in combination.

A compassionate post-pandemic response that does not address underlying inequalities, for example, ignores certain communities’ specific needs. Meanwhile, tackling specific injustices without engaging everyone in efforts like mask-wearing endangers the public health.

Bolstered by scientific evidence, virtue ethics can help nations reopen not just economically but morally, too.





The world came together for a virtual vaccine summit. The U.S. was conspicuously absent.


The world comes together for a virtual vaccine summit. The U.S. is ...

World leaders came together in a virtual summit Monday to pledge billions of dollars to quickly develop vaccines and drugs to fight the coronavirus.

Missing from the roster was the Trump administration, which declined to participate but highlighted from Washington what one official called its “whole-of-America” efforts in the United States and its generosity to global health efforts.

The online conference, led by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and a half-dozen countries, was set to raise $8.2 billion from governments, philanthropies and the private sector to fund research and mass-produce drugs, vaccines and testing kits to combat the virus, which has killed more than 250,000 people worldwide.

With the money came soaring rhetoric about international solidarity and a good bit of boasting about each country’s efforts and achievements, live and prerecorded, by Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson, Japan’s Shinzo Abe — alongside Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“The more we pull together and share our expertise, the faster our scientists will succeed,” said Johnson, who was so stricken by the virus that he thought he might never leave the intensive care unit alive last month. “The race to discover the vaccine to defeat this virus is not a competition between countries but the most urgent shared endeavor of our lifetimes.”

A senior Trump administration official said Monday the United States “welcomes” the efforts of the conference participants. He did not explain why the United States did not join them.

“Many of the organizations and programs this pledging conference seeks to support already receive very significant funding and support from the U.S. government and private sector,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under White House rules for briefing reporters.

Public health officials and researchers expressed surprise.

“It’s the first time that I can think of where you have had a major international pledging conference for a global crisis of this kind of importance, and the U.S. is just absent,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, who worked on the Ebola response in the Obama administration.

Given that no one knows which vaccines will succeed, he said, it’s crucial to back multiple efforts working in parallel.

“Against that kind of uncertainty we should be trying to position ourselves to be supporting — and potentially benefiting from — all of them,” said Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. “And instead we seem to be just focused on trying to win the race, in the hopes we happen to get one of the successful ones.”

Conference participants expressed a need for unity.

“We can’t just have the wealthiest countries have a vaccine and not share it with the world,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

“Let us in the international community unite to overcome this crisis,” Abe said.

Russia and India also did not participate. Chinese premier Li Keqiang was replaced at the last minute by Zhang Ming, Beijing’s ambassador to the European Union.

The U.S. official said the United States “is the single largest health and humanitarian donor in world. And the American people have continued that legacy of generosity in the global fight against covid-19.”

“And we would welcome additional high-quality, transparent contributions from others,” he said.

Asked three more times to explain why the United States did not attend, the official said he already had given an answer.

The U.S. government has provided $775 million in emergency health, humanitarian, economic and development aid for governments, international organizations and charities fighting the pandemic. The official said the United States is in the process of giving about twice that amount in additional funding.

There was one major American player at the virtual summit: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which promised to spend $125 million in the fight.

“This virus doesn’t care what nationality you are,” Melinda Gates told the gathering. As long as the virus is somewhere, she said, it’s everywhere.

Scientists are working around-the-clock to find a cure or treatment for the coronavirus. The World Health Organization says eight vaccines have entered human trials and another 94 are in development.

But finding an effective vaccine is only part of the challenge. When it’s discovered, infectious disease experts are predicting a scramble for limited doses, because there won’t be enough to vaccinate everyone on Day One. And deploying it could be difficult, particularly in countries that lack robust medical infrastructure.

Those that have begun human trials include a research project at Oxford University in England, which hopes to have its vaccine ready in the fall. The university started human trials on April 23. “In normal times,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, “reaching this stage would take years.”

Other scientists are sprinting to create antiviral drugs or repurposing existing drugs such as remdesivir, which U.S. infectious diseases chief Anthony S. Fauci said he expected would be the new “standard of care.”

Other approaches now in trial include treatments such as convalescent plasma, which involves taking blood plasma from people who have recovered from covid-19 to patients who are fighting the virus, in the hope that the antibody-rich fluid will give the infected a helping hand.

Conference participants expressed hope that by working together, the world will find solutions more quickly — and they can then be dispersed to all countries, not only the wealthy, or those that developed vaccines first.

Many of the leaders stressed their support for the WHO. President Trump announced last month he was cutting off U.S. funding for the WHO because he said it had sided too closely with China, where the coronavirus arose. Trump says Chinese leaders underplayed the threat and hid crucial facts.

Public health analysts have shared some of those criticisms but have also criticized Trump for cutting off funding.

Peter Jay Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said the United States has always been the primary funder of new products for global health. The country invested $1.8 billion in neglected diseases in 2018, according to Policy Cures Research, more than two-thirds of the worldwide total.

Hotez said the United States shoulders the burden of investing in global health technologies, while countries such as China do not step up.

“More than one mechanism for supporting global health technologies — that may not be such as a bad thing,” he said. “If it was all under one umbrella, you risk that some strong-willed opinions would carry the day and you might not fund the best technology.”

Hotez is working on a coronavirus vaccine that uses an existing, low-cost technology, previously used for the hepatitis B vaccine, precisely because he is worried about equitable distribution of the vaccine.

“I’m not very confident that some of the cutting-edge technologies going into clinical trials, which have never led to a licensed vaccine before, are going to filter down to low- and middle-income countries anytime soon,” Hotez said. “I’m really worried.”