OPINION: The role of ethics in emergency situations

Topics Ethical research and evaluation | Evidence-based practice | Evidence-based policy | Humanitarian | Human rights and culture | Tools & Guidance
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By: Alitzel Valadez (RDI Network Intern). Alitzel is studying her Master of Development Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has been a great help updating our website, pulling together our newsletter and supporting our research activities.


We are currently facing unprecedented times. We are in the midst of a public health emergency and we need to be ready for what is still to come. With the COVID-19 crisis evolving, it is safe to assume that the hardest-hit populations will be the ones lest prepared, especially the ones that were already extremely vulnerable and in critical situations beforehand. We must remember that emergency preparedness calls for a deeper understanding of some ethical dilemmas and the way that we can navigate through uncharted territory.

A key problem that we face in times like this is that usually there is no ethical guidance in emergency planning processes. It is understandable that during this critical time, there will be a shortage of resources. However, this does not mean that ethical conduct should be abandoned. Contrarily, it is in times like this that we need to pay utmost attention to our actions and behaviours.

One of the biggest ethical questions is the limit between our human rights and our human duties. We need state action to control human behaviour, even if it means reducing some of our human rights temporarily for the wellbeing of the majority, especially for the most vulnerable. For example, practices of social distancing and staying at home may limit our right of free movement, but it is crucial to understand that decreasing social interactions and limiting the time we spend outside are necessary measures.

We need to be aware, and accept, that some people will suffer more than others and there is no way of remedying this. Health workers, elderly people, unsalaried workers and displaced people are among the most vulnerable in an emergency like this one. We need to understand that these people need extra care and we need to do our part in securing the best possible scenario for everyone. Additionally, public officials and emergency planners need to take steps towards mitigating undue burdens in these segments of the population with the provision of special resources and, when possible, compensation.


Good leadership is essential and in order to achieve it, planning processes need to remain transparent, consistent, inclusive and participatory.


The speed at which the virus has spread is alarming and the way that some people have reacted is unacceptable and unethical. Especially when countries, like Australia or the United Kingdom, have ordered a ‘shut-down’.

We need to be courageous, patient and humane; we need to show courage in the face of this situation, be patient with leadership and humane in the way we treat everyone and protect those more vulnerable. We must home in our sense of responsibility and cooperation to help facilitate effective and ethical response and recovery for the community.


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