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Coronavirus ethics begins with a recognition of our limitations

By Kevin W. Wildes, 28 March 2020
Image: Daan Stevens/Unsplash.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic gives us, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, an opportunity to remember that we are finite creatures. The United States has a “can do” culture that brought us to the moon, but we can be impatient and expect things to happen instantly. The coronavirus brings us face to face with the reality that we have limitations. We have a limited number of hospital beds. Our health care personnel are limited, and our knowledge is limited.

In confronting the coronavirus, we must recognise another kind of limitation: We do not have an unlimited supply of the ventilators that assist the most seriously ill to breathe. As The New York Times reports, medical leaders in Washington State, which had the earliest wave of Covid-19 diagnoses, “have quietly begun preparing a bleak triage strategy…[that] will assess factors such as age, health and likelihood of survival in determining who will get access to full care and who will merely be provided comfort care, with the expectation that they will die.”

“Rationing” is a frightening word, but we will need clear ethical guidelines about how medical resources are allocated. Every accredited hospital in the United States must have a formalised way of addressing the ethical questions that arise when there is a shortage of resources or staff, but their guidelines may need to be updated to take into account the particular challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

Should care be given first to the sickest people or to those with the best prospects of recovery? Should they go to the highest bidders? Can we take resources, like a ventilator, away from one patient to help another?

This pandemic reminds us that health is not simply about the individual patient; it is about community. The United States has not been facing this reality. Our health care system should reflect communal solidarity and deeply held Christian ethical values.

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Kevin William Wildes, S.J., is a university professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

With thanks to America Magazine and Kevin W. Wildes, where this article originally appeared.

 

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