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Pandemic Ethics

Distributive Justice

The Jewish practice of tzedakah, or support for poor people, is an expression of the Torah’s commitment to tzedek, or justice. But the Torah’s vision of social justice is very distant from today’s reality, in which great social disparities have been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. The Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the ways that structural racism leads to disproportionate rates of illness and death among people of color. Social inequities in healthcare, food access, and environmental safety mean that poor people and people of color have higher rates of comorbidities, making them more vulnerable to the virus. Poor people and people of color are disproportionately on the front lines doing risky essential work. At the same time, many have lost their employment, and now can’t pay for food or housing. When the risk of illness is not fairly distributed, how can we use our individual and communal resources to advance justice?

Traditional sources

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Current thinking

Racial justice

COVID-19’s Disparate Impacts Are Not a Story about Race

By Jennifer Tsai — September 8, 2020

Emergency medicine physician Jennifer Tsai warns of increasingly overt racism against Asian Americans. This anti-Asian racism is a rehash of the historic entanglement of pandemic xenophobia with disease, genes, race, and risk. Immigrants are caricatured as dangerous sources of disease.

“In this pandemic, data are taking a back seat to racial prejudice. The irrational racist surveillance that leads to the brutalization of Black Americans in their neighborhoods is spilling into public health and medical care. Fueled by a president who continues to blame a faceless China for the pandemic’s miseries, citizens and caregivers of color face fear and disdain. Simultaneously, re-emerging myths of genetic racial differences scrutinize bodies of color as sources of disease, all while obscuring the deadly climate of injustice that hastens breathlessness. America’s racism is rampant, and it’s shaping the response to this pandemic to the detriment of us all.”


Who will get the coronavirus vaccine first in the US?

By Olivia Goldhill — August 12, 2020

Health experts are making a serious argument for prioritizing vaccine recipients based on race. Latino and Black Americans are more likely to work jobs that don’t permit them to work from home, such as transport and service jobs that create greater risk of spreading coronavirus. And Black and Latino people are twice as likely to die from coronavirus as white people.

“Dayna Bowen Matthew, dean of the George Washington University Law School and an ACIP consultant on vaccine distribution, told the Times that racism should be directly addressed in vaccine distribution plans. “It’s racial inequality—inequality in housing, inequality in employment, inequality in access to health care—that produced the underlying diseases,” she said. “That’s wrong. And it’s that inequality that requires us to prioritize by race and ethnicity.””


Is It Okay to Protest During a Pandemic? The Coronavirus Ethicist Has the Answer.

By Karen Stohr — June 4, 2020

Is it ethical to attend a demonstration during the Covid-19 pandemic? Dr. Karen Stohr, professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, affirms that it is—under the right conditions. The most important ethical task is to make sure one’s behavior eases the burdens of racial injustice. If one can’t demonstrate without putting oneself or others at risk, one should find other ways to oppose racism.

 “Everyone should be concerned about the devastating impact of the pandemic on African Americans, and each of us, regardless of race, has a moral responsibility to do what we can to minimize and ameliorate it. Obviously anyone who has symptoms of Covid-19 or has reason to think they’ve been exposed to it should not demonstrate elbow-to-elbow with other people. But we know that people can spread the virus without realizing that they’re ill. So the most ethically responsible way to protest is to do so as carefully as you possibly can.”

For further reading, we recommend you this article that provides a more elaborate analysis of the ethics of social distancing in light of the Black Lives Matter protests.


Remember, No One Is Coming to Save Us

By Roxane Gay — May 30, 2020

Author Roxane Gay writes that even during a pandemic, racism is as pernicious as ever. Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting the black community. There seems to be no context in which black lives matter. 

“Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism. We will live with the knowledge that a hashtag is not a vaccine for white supremacy. We live with the knowledge that, still, no one is coming to save us. The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free.”


Dancing between Light and Shadow – Increasing Awareness of the Impact of Covid 19 Disparities on Jews of Color

By Yavilah McCoy — May 21, 2020

Yavilah McCoy is the CEO of DIMENSIONS Inc. in Boston, an organization that works with Jews of Color and their allies to develop programs to support JOC. She describes how the COVID-19 outbreak disproportionately affects women of color, who face increased vulnerability to inequitable systems that have been marginalizing and killing people of color for centuries.

“Among the communities of Jews of Color and people of color that Dimensions offers direct-service to, we encountered hourly wage earners who have been or are worried about being laid off from work. We encountered leaders in our programs who work in education and healthcare and who have been deemed “essential” to the American economy, but have not received adequate protections or a living wage under government law for their labor. In recent weeks, as areas of the country have begun to open, we have all felt the impact of the death of Ahmaud Arbery and the disparate reality that as people across the country are now venturing outdoors after quarantining for weeks, many people of color can not leave their homes for a jog without fearing being gunned down and killed.”


Structural Racism, White Fragility, and Ventilator Rationing Policies

By Charlene Galarneau – April 20, 2020

Charlene Galarneau, senior lecturer in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics, exposes how procedures for rationing ventilators differentially affect Blacks and other people of color. She calls on bioethicists and other decision makers to acknowledge and confront structural racism in pandemic policy making.

“What to do about structural racism in health care is a critical conversation that requires white people, as members of the dominant racial group, to sit with the uncomfortable reality that we have benefited from a racial hierarchy that has harmed others. It requires us to acknowledge that structural racism is present in health care, health policy, and public health; to understand that the intent of policymakers is less important than the effects of their policies. And to trust that those most affected by structural racism have crucial knowledge about effective strategies to reduce and end it. To begin that conversation, bioethicists must, at the least, stop denying that structural racism exists in health care policy and that it can kill.”


Other aspects of distributive justice

COVID’s Effects on Women

By David Nitkin — September 18, 2020

Reports suggest that lockdowns across the globe have resulted in a huge increase in violence against women. As job losses are exacerbated by climate and pestilence, women are seeing decline in services and jobs. But the current pandemic also has drawn attention to socially-valued front line workers, most of whom are women.

“The coronavirus is a more-or-less inanimate piece of floating genetic material that is not capable of active discrimination against women. Females would seem to bear an inordinate brunt of pressures like unemployment, return to work and responsibility for essential hero work and child care during these COVID times. Recent studies from various countries show some comparative short gains but also some longer term challenges for women.”


The Ethics of K-12 School Reopening: Identifying and Addressing the Values at Stake

By eSchool+ Initiative - June 2020

The burdens of the pandemic have hit children especially hard. This piece lays out the conflicting values around school reopening. While physical health is one important component of well-being, but so too are mental health, behavioral development, learning, social connection, and physical and economic security. Furthermore, keeping schools closed disproportionately affects the poorest, most disadvantaged children, many of whom are children of color.

“Probably the only ethically uncontestable decision about reopening schools is that, one way or another, school must go on. We cannot delay in fulfilling the obligations to children that only schools can meet. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we must find a way to give children what they need to protect and advance all their interests, including health, intellectual and social development, and safety.”


The Book of Ruth: A story about famine offers a powerful lesson for a pandemic

By Mijal Bitton — May 26, 2020

Dr. Mijal Bitton, a Fellow in Residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and Rosh Kehilla of the Downtown Minyan, discovers a message of social justice for this time of pandemic in the Book of Ruth. The book begins with a natural disaster and tells the story of Ruth, a vulnerable foreigner who eventually finds a home and gives birth to the messianic line.

“Our sacred texts do not include a narrative-rich scroll dealing with the aftermath of pandemics. But the natural disaster at the start of Ruth must compel us to heed its urgent message. Ruth teaches us that the only way to transition from the ravages of a natural disaster towards the birth of the messianic dynasty is to sensitize ourselves to the potential for human wrong that can find fertile ground in natural disasters.”


Will the Coronavirus Make Us Rethink Mass Incarceration?

By Sarah Stillman — May 18, 2020

For decades, community leaders and activists have pointed out the social costs of the prison system. Now the pandemic has exposed its public-health risks: social distancing is not possible in mass detention centers. Many facilities delayed reducing their populations and instituting safeguards, even after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

“At Oakdale, in Louisiana, where the first federal prisoner died from COVID-19, the death toll has now reached at least eight. The A.C.L.U. unsuccessfully sued the prison, seeking the release of vulnerable people. “Imagine if someone sick with COVID-19 came into your home and sealed the doors and windows behind them,” the complaint read. “That is what the Oakdale federal detention centers have just done to the over 1,800 human beings currently detained there, where a COVID-19 outbreak is rampant, social distancing is impossible, and no one detained can leave.”


How are refugees affected by COVID-19?        

By Paul Spiegel and Samuel Volkin — April 20, 2020

Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health, discusses with MPH/MBA candidate Samuel Volkin the critical vulnerabilities that put refugees and asylum seekers at risk during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“In a closed, detentionlike setting, the pandemic will spread like wildfire. That’s one of the worst scenarios. It is not a good idea to put people in those sorts of conditions. There have also been cases of COVID-19 among asylum seekers and migrants in U.S. detention centers. There have been small outbreaks in several other countries as well. But as of now, the worst is yet to come as the pandemic expands to the Middle East, Africa, and other parts of Asia because that’s where most refugees are located.”


Disability and the Politics of Vulnerability

By Julia Watts Belser – April 15, 2020

Jewish-studies scholar, rabbi and disability activist Julia Watts Belser offers guidelines for how congregations can better support disabled people during the pandemic, inviting religious allies to act in long-term solidarity with disabled people and other marginalized communities. She argues for enacting affirmations of love and dignity through the pursuit of structural change and social justice.

“When religious voices engage with disability, they often affirm love and welcome. This kind of declaration matters, especially in a world that disparages disabled people and treats us with disdain. All too often, though, that doctrine of love is left to stand alone. Proclaiming the infinite value of each and every individual as an image of God is a powerful theological principle. But it’s cheap talk, unless it’s coupled with a deeper commitment to reckon with the concrete ways disabled people’s lives are harmed by ableism, racism, poverty, and structural violence.”

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