From who gets an ICU bed to volunteering for a vaccine trial: ethics in the time of COVID.

“Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that life is mostly ethically neutral unless we come across some catastrophe or other, or some really difficult moral choice. But when we look more closely – and this I think is what COVID has done – we realise that our values and our beliefs about the world, and what’s important, and who’s important, are making themselves present all the time.”

Dan Fleming is the head of Ethics and Formation at St Vincent’s Health – so he’s been kept plenty busy this year. He speaks with Natasha about pandemic ethics – pandethics, if you will – including who gets prioritised when health resources are scarce, quality-adjusted life years, and what happens when a vaccine becomes available.

Natasha also speaks with Ed O’Neill, an oncology researcher at Oxford University – who also put his hand up to be one of the first guinea pigs in the world for a COVID-19 vaccine trial. Both Ed and Dan draw on a particular ethical framework for the choices they’ve had to make in this pandemic year – one that conceives of people as made in the image of God, and centres on love of neighbour.

“The neighbour to whom one is called first is the neighbour who’s forgotten by everyone else. So today we might talk about priority populations, or poor and vulnerable groups. Different commentators use different language, so they might talk about the forgotten ones, or those who live on the underside … A unique feature of this framework is every person has the same value, objectively speaking. Every human person is enshrined in a special dignity. And that calls on us to think about, okay, well, in the context in which we find ourselves, whose dignity isn’t being ensured? Whose dignity is not being served by our current context?”