COVID-19 and Imperatives for an “Emergency Ethics”
COVID-19 is causing a global humanitarian emergency. It comes on top of forced migration, deep poverty, hunger, disease, and other “silent tsunamis” of suffering that have prompted active debates about the ethical, religious, and practical principles involved. Hugo Slim has grappled with these topics as a practitioner with the International Red Cross organizations and as a scholar. He suggests that the crisis will shape a new culture of emergency ethics and looks to all sectors (the religious among them) to craft “urgent ethics” that are reasonable, transparent, fair, and broadly agreed by all (insofar as that is possible). Emergency ethics, he argues, involve hard choices, balancing different rights and duties, and demanding exceptional tasks and sacrifices. A hopeful hope is that humans often become more ethical in emergencies, as individuals and as collectives. This is the time, therefore, to bring out virtues like kindness, humanity, courage, selflessness, and a commitment to the common good.
Four imperatives emerge. First, emergencies are not just about human rights but also about human duties. And rights can clash painfully in emergencies (in the COVID-19 pandemic the balance between the right to life and socioeconomic rights is far from simple). Measures to protect those who are vulnerable have costs; protection means disruption. Second, good leadership is crucial, to help do the right thing at the right time. Ethical leaders need both to listen, constantly, and to communicate well, giving a clear moral vision of what is best and changing tack when necessary. Third, some groups will have to pay a higher price than others. Those on the “front lines” are asked to be heroic and those in the informal sectors are likely to face special pain. “This is all unfair, and our emergency ethics should do everything possible to mitigate their suffering.” And finally, courage, patience, and humanity are needed to stay focused on the common good.
Slim offers a call and guide to action: “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.”
(Based on: March 18, 2020, The New Humanitarian article)