RIVKA T. WITENBERG A moral dilemma or not.

Apr 8, 2020

The outbreak of the COVID-19 has created some problematic dilemmas, at least for some of us. We hear from people of all walks of life asking whether it could be that the cure is worse than the disease.

It is expressed not only more generally but also by high-powered politicians and businessmen as well journalist. On Saturday the 28/3 Janet Albrechtsen in the Weekend Australian expressed such sentiments in her regular column. She expresses doubts about the harshness of the shutdown, the effect on human isolation and importantly the economy. Similarly, Trump, America’s President told a press briefing on the 24/3 that “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem”.

He too was concerned about the economy and its outcome. Interestingly, John Auerbach, president of America’s Health Trust, a nonpartisan organisation, suggested that extensive illness and death “also have a powerful economic impact that’s impossible to ignore or play down”. These are examples of the discussions that are occurring in the media. What arguments like these lack is any moral dimension. They lack a moral reason for why financial security is more important than saving human, often vulnerable, lives.

Both in psychology and philosophy moral dilemmas are used to better understand underlying beliefs and reasoning about moral issues. Twos often used ones are the Heinz Dilemma and the Trolley Dilemma. The Heinz Dilemma is about human life and commerce. Heinz is left with the choice of stealing a new medicine he cannot afford to save his wife’s life or let her die. In the Trolley Dilemma people have to make a decision whether to save 5 lives by diverting a careering train from one track to another so that only one person dies. Both these are not just stories but they are aimed to assess moral decision making. However, we do not need to go to philosophy or psychology to confront moral dilemmas in real life.

The corona virus epidemic is challenging us to make a fundamental moral decision. It can be regarded of as a moral dilemma. We know from current understanding that in Australia there are three vulnerable groups – Indigenous Australians or the first nation of Australia over 50 years of age, people of all ages who are affected by autoimmune problems and other illnesses of all ages (comorbidity) and finally people over 70 years of age. Generally, the medical advice is that most other individuals would suffer flu like symptoms which they will overcome relatively easily. On the other hand, we have the all-important economy to consider, the hundreds and thousands of unemployed people, the closing of shops, malls, factories and so on all having an important impact on the Australian economy. Put simply, is the economy more important than human life? This is a dilemma which is moral in nature. Three different responses to this dilemma can be found depending on the country.

In Australia we have worked hard to “flatten the curve” so that we do not overwhelm the health system. That seems to be the driving motivation underlying the decisions made to put an iron gird around Australia and ask people to quarantine themselves. This is not a moral response, it is a practical response. From a practical point of view the Commonwealth has become, with time, exemplary in helping the businesses, those who found themselves unemployed and those who rent. This is commendable and practical.

Sweden on the other hand, has taken a very different approach. It is again a practical way of solving the problem. Sweden operates on a mitigation principle introduced by Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, in order to reduce the impact. That is, lessening the impact of the Covid19 on Sweden’s population and the economy. An approach that differs from the rest of the Nordic countries. While Denmark, Norway and Finland have closed their borders and introduced lockdowns, in Sweden, cafés, shops and offices are open and social life is unaffected. It has issued recommendations rather than restrictions and it is waiting to see what happens. Some believe that the government of Stefan Löfven and his advisers are leading Sweden into a disaster in regard to health outcomes. Others applaud them for not buying into the media frenzy of the rest of the world and keeping the Swedish economy and social life intact. A prominent Swedish health physician has summed it up well. “Either we are mad or the rest of the world will prove to be mad”.

New Zealand has also closed its borders and restricted all unnecessary work and social activities but notably, the Prime Minister, Jacinta Arden’s greatest emphasis is about saving lives first and foremost. It is not that she does not consider the economy and going back to normality but her emphasis is on saving lives. In encouraging people to staying home she suggests, “That’s how we will save lives”. With that she means the vulnerable, the health professionals and others who could catch the covid19 virus. She also makes it very clear that it is not only the elderly but also the young that can be affected severely by the epidemic. The economy to her cannot take precedence over life. This to me is a moral choice.

There is no doubt that both Australian and Swedish authorities would rather see less people dying from Covid19 but unlike Prime minister Arden their emphasis is more practical in nature whereas Jacinta Arden is emphatically about what her priorities are.

Dr Rivka T Witenberg is an academic and writer focusing on moral development and tolerance. Latest publication: The psychology of tolerance: Conception and development https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-13-3789 

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