Human Dignity

Pandemic Ethics

Human Dignity

Jewish ethical tradition assigns ultimate value to each human life. Across the diversity of circumstances and traits that differentiate one human being from another, we are equal with regard to our dignity whatever our age, background, wealth, gender, physical appearance or ability. How can we intervene when policy decisions and social practices conspire to treat some people as more disposable than others? What changes can we make in our personal and communal lives to uphold the dignity of those who are marginalized?

Traditional sources

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Current thinking

The Meaning of 200,000 COVID-19 Deaths

By Alexander Friedman — September 22, 2020

COVID-19 has now killed 200,000 people in the United States. Many Americans desensitized to the pandemic’s skyrocketing death toll. The danger of this approach is that it relieves the government of its obligation to act and opens the way for far more COVID-19 deaths.

“Yes, 200,000 dead is a statistic. One can visit any number of COVID-19-tracking websites, and see the numbers tick up in real time. But we must not forget that each time that number rises, someone has lost their mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, grandparent, friend, neighbor, or colleague. And someone has lost their life.”


Ethical guidelines for COVID-19 tracing apps

By Jessica Morley, Josh Cowls, Mariarosaria Taddeo & Luciano Floridi — May 28, 2020

Contact-tracing apps have emerged as a central part of many countries’ strategies for bringing the pandemic under control. They are already in use in Germany, South Korea and Singapore, and several other governments are testing or considering them. But how do these apps relate to the right to privacy, which is a key component of human dignity? A group of researchers at Oxford University set out 16 questions to assess whether a contact-tracing app is ethically justifiable.

“Simply rolling out a tracing app without ethical consideration is not acceptable. Even in a crisis, a ‘try-everything’ approach is dangerous when it ignores the real costs, including serious and long-lasting harms to fundamental rights and freedoms, and the opportunity costs of not devoting resources to something else.”


Yes. Safety, Respect and Equity Count in a Pandemic

By Elana Wien and Guila Benchimol – May 6, 2020

Elana Wien and Dr. Guila Benchimol from the Safety Respect Equity (SRE) Network, a national Jewish network working on creating safe, respectful, and equitable workplaces and communal spaces, remind us that inequity is playing out in our homes, in our workplaces and online every day. They invite readers to ​attend to how the crisis exposes and aggravates gender and other inequities.

“Where are our current practices, policies, habits, assumptions reinforcing inequities felt by the 70% of our Jewish nonprofit professionals who are women, the 12-15% of our Jewish community who are Jews of Color (and many more who are in multiracial families), the one in four Jews with a disability, the 16-20% of Jews living in poverty, and the one in four women experiencing domestic violence? How do we count and account for these experiences and these voices? By marking it down.”


In the Time of Covid-19, Ventilators Are Scarce. How Do We Decide Who Gets Them?

By Rebecca Epstein-Levi – March 26, 2020

Jewish ethics scholar Rebecca J. Epstein-Levi weighs in on the devaluation of disabled lives during epidemics. Epstein-Levi argues that we are socialized to see disabled people as acceptable casualties and calls on us to remember that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

“Here’s the thing: lives are valuable, period. They’re valuable in and of themselves. If we become accustomed to the idea that some people’s deaths are “acceptable losses,” then we lose our ability to see a world in which no preventable deaths are acceptable. If we become accustomed to the idea that some people’s deaths are “acceptable losses,” then we lose our ability to see a world in which no preventable deaths are acceptable.”


My Life Is More ‘Disposable’ During This Pandemic

By Elliot Kukla – March 19, 2020

Rabbi Kukla is a chronically ill rabbi who offers spiritual care to people living with illness and to elders approaching the end of life. In this article, he decries the ableism and ageism that have characterized responses to the threat of COVID-19.

“In this moment, one of the best ways you can show up and save the lives of fellow human beings is by withdrawing physically. Staying away from other people contradicts our image of what saving lives looks like. We are used to heroes rushing in. But disabled and sick people already know that stillness can be caring. We know that immune systems are fragile things, and homes can’t always be left. Rest is disability justice, and right now it is one of our most powerful tools to keep one another alive.”

The Reconstructionist Network