public policy government

Government’s Coronavirus Response Puts Morality To The Test

5 May, 2020

Like it or not, says our Lead Moderator Peter Mares, the virus has brought government back into vogue: it is government that subsidises wages and extends credit, it is public hospitals on the front line of the pandemic, it is tax dollars fuelling research into a vaccine. While businesses and community groups contribute to tackling the virus, we look first to government for solutions.

This puts public officials under immense pressure. They must make quick judgements, aware that any misstep will have profound repercussions. A pandemic has made morality the subject of everyday conversations and thrown the ethics of decision making into stark relief.

Ordinarily, our democratic processes help to determine resource allocations, and obscure the values at play. In a crisis, the ethical considerations are exposed for all to see, raw and acute. And it is an unfortunate reality that public office holders sometimes face tragic choices, where every available option will cause significant harm.

Peter argues that the foundational understanding that opens the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must underpin all our decisions. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

In other words, every person deserves equal respect, irrespective of age, wealth, social standing, visa status, (dis)ability, personal connections or other contingent factors.

This doesn’t mean that everyone gets a respirator when there are too few to go around, but it creates a moral requirement that triage decisions are not the result of discrimination, prejudice, vested interest, political influence or favouritism.

And even if we cannot provide someone with a potentially life-saving respirator, we can still treat them with dignity and respect. We owe them, and their loved ones, an honest explanation as to why that tragic choice was made.

If Australia’s public health measures continue to be successful, we may not have to face the choice as to who gets a respirator. But what applies to the intensive care unit also applies to society at large. The pandemic is causing economic harm, physical suffering and social damage. Morality requires that these burdens are shared fairly, and not in ways that replicate the existing inequalities and privileges that characterise Australian society.

Canberra Times, 5 May 2020. Read the full article here.