Distributive Justice

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 on a local, national and global scale. Social inequities in healthcare, food access, and environmental safety mean that poor people are more vulnerable to the virus, even as poor people and people of color are disproportionately on the front lines doing risky essential work. Globally, vaccine distribution has largely excluded non-Western countries altogether. 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

Vaccine Guilt is Real. Here’s How to Deal, According to Local Ethicists

By Jenny McCoy — February 8, 2021

If you’re feeling unworthy about your place in the vaccine queue, the solution might seem simple: Just step back in line. But according to ethicists, that decision won’t actually do much good, for you or for society. This article from Colorado explores what you can do with vaccine guilt.

“You could (…) the governor or your local representatives and ask that the prioritization system contain more nuance (…). You could petition, for example, for people over 70 who are diabetic to have earlier access to the vaccine than those who are over 70 with no comorbidities. Or request that Coloradans who live in zip codes where the average life expectancy is lower than average be given earlier vaccine access than those in high life expectancy zip codes.”


Who Goes First? Government Leaders and Prioritization of SARS-CoV-2 Vaccines

By Mark T. Hughes, Jeffrey Kahn, and Allen Kachalia — February 5, 2021

The vice president, Senate majority leader, House speaker, surgeon general, and members of Congress were among the first people vaccinated against Covid-19 in the United States. Yet prioritization frameworks created by expert panels and adopted by states do not grant government leaders any special status, and giving them priority raises ethical questions. This article explores the ethics of prioritizing government leaders.

“Allocation frameworks would have to define the characteristics of people in “essential leadership” and mandate that officials making allocation decisions apply the criteria transparently. Officials would have to explain who would (or would not) be prioritized and why. Otherwise, we believe, special prioritization of government leaders is inappropriate. Flouting established guidelines, or treating leaders as above them, will only further flame mistrust in government and its future public health responses.”


‘Vaccine privilege’ could haunt the West

By Cai Nebe - February 2, 2021

Cai Nebe decries how the West has treated vaccination as a right for its own citizens and a privilege for everyone else. This is an ethical failing on a global scale. 

“The vaccine rollout should have been and could have been the best of a unified West reclaiming lost global clout. But instead, the rollout has been divisive, nationalistic.”


Vaccine Nationalism Harms Everyone and Protects No One

By Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — February 2, 2021

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus argues that hoarding vaccines isn’t just immoral, but it’s medically self-defeating.

“Vaccine allocation must not become a zero-sum game. Vaccine nationalism is not just morally indefensible. It is epidemiologically self-defeating and clinically counterproductive. […] Allowing the majority of the world’s population to go unvaccinated will not only perpetuate needless illness and deaths and the pain of ongoing lockdowns, but also spawn new virus mutations as COVID-19 continues to spread among unprotected populations.”


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.”

The Reconstructionist Network