Explore the past, present, and future of emergency aid in our Rethinking Humanitarianism series

This age of COVID-19 demands new emergency ethics

Agreeing on emergency ethics will become more difficult as the suffering deepens.

Travellers at the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport
Travellers at the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport this week. (Benoit Tessier/REUTERS)

The whole world is facing a humanitarian emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic. And this crisis will shape a new culture of emergency ethics. This makes it very important that governments, citizens, and humanitarian organisations very consciously create the kind of urgent ethics that are reasonable, transparent, fair, and broadly agreed by everyone.

There are good signs that this is beginning, with people all over the world understanding and getting behind the ethics of “flattening the curve” and changing their behaviour to protect others, often at deep costs to themselves. We will all need to keep at it, deliberating together on what is right as the crisis changes, not least because we will need consensus on emergency ethics again soon, as extreme forms of climate crisis hit us in the next few years.

Agreeing on emergency ethics will become more difficult in the next few months as the suffering deepens. Let’s not forget that hundreds of millions of people beyond the West have lived such emergency ethics on a daily basis for decades in long wars, extreme poverty, epidemics, and disasters. They are ethical experts who can advise us in the West. And we can always consult those in the gay community and beyond who endured and transformed the HIV/AIDS emergency that arose in the 1980s – the last great pandemic we all faced together.

So, what makes for good emergency ethics and what kind of ethical thinking should guide us as we make a new crisis ethics for this time of COVID-19?

“We may panic buy and feel scared, but deep down we also know it is a time for exceptionally ethical conduct and for virtues that we do not always show.”

Emergency ethics involve hard choices. People have to balance different rights and duties, and often have to demand exceptional tasks (and sacrifices) of particular groups. But, in emergencies, we humans also tend to become more ethical than usual, both as individuals and as collectives. We may panic buy and feel scared, but deep down we also know it is a time for exceptionally ethical conduct and for virtues that we do not always show, like kindness, humanity, courage, selflessness, and a commitment to the common good.

There are four areas where we all need to focus as we create new emergency ethics for the world.

First, we need to recognise that emergencies are not just about human rights but also about human duties. We have to give up some of our rights – to freedom of movement, to family life, and to economic entitlements – in order to protect others.

Rights clash painfully in emergencies, and the hardest part of emergency ethics so far in the COVID-19 pandemic is finding a good balance between the right to life and socio-economic rights. Many people will suffer from measures designed to protect others more vulnerable than themselves. Protection versus disruption. There is a duty to do so, but an ethical judgement must also be made about when enough is enough, and ways must be found to mitigate the worst effects of rights curtailed.  

This requires good leadership, which is the second essential factor in emergency ethics. Doing the right thing at the right time is not easy, and our political and technical leaders deserve our respect as they work long hours and make huge decisions about life, death, health systems, and economic loss. Emergencies need ethical leaders who communicate well, give a clear moral vision of what is best, and are ready to change policy fast when necessary. This means listening to human experience as well as statistical modelling, and speaking clearly, honestly, and regularly. Leadership is difficult, stressful, and lonely, which means leaders should have our support and understanding when they are acting with integrity in crisis.

Thirdly, particular groups of people will be required to pay a higher price than others. Human ethics has not yet found a perfect way to treat everybody equally and well. This is just as true in emergencies.

Health workers and the staff and volunteers in emergency services will be put under massive physical and emotional stress. We are asking great things of them. Older people will have to endure physical confinement for weeks and months. This is all heroic, and they should have our support. Unsalaried day labourers across the world will face extreme deprivation. Destitute, detained, and displaced people will have fewer ways of coping and will probably get sicker than others. People in countries with poor health systems will die more than others. This is all unfair, and our emergency ethics should do everything possible to mitigate their suffering.   

“Human ethics has not yet found a perfect way to treat everybody equally and well.”

Finally, each one of us needs to be courageous, patient, and humane, and stay focused on the common good. In a global pandemic we are all first responders. The front line of a pandemic emergency runs all around us and within us. There are social duties and small acts of kindness that we can and should do to improve the situation. We need to show courage in changing our behaviour, accepting reasonable sacrifices, and being of good spirit to keep up the morale of people around us. These personal virtues are not small things when we are frightened for ourselves and those we love, and when we start to be personally hurt by death, disruption, and impoverishment.

Emergency ethics are played out in rapid time, but we can think them through in slow time – with family and friends in isolation or with politicians and others through digital media – to understand the exceptional demands they place upon us and millions of others. We must then come together as a society to shape and agree on consensual emergency ethics for our times.

Behind the headlines: How will COVID-19 impact crisis zones? | Thursday 19 March

Aid agencies are scrambling to adapt as the COVID-19 pandemic is felt throughout the world. Join Senior Editor Ben Parker as he speaks to leading experts and practitioners from across the humanitarian sector to discuss some of the most pressing issues.

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