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The Ethics of COVID-19

Patients, Medical Professionals and Community Members Face New Ethical Dilemmas in Their Daily Lives and Careers

As some governors are moving to ease COVID-19 restrictions, the virus is causing patients, medical professionals and community members to face unprecedented ethical dilemmas in their day-to-day lives and careers.

“As social animals who live in community, this pandemic has made us unable to ignore the issue, and significance of, social obligation,” said Stuart Finder, PhD, MA, director of the Center for Healthcare Ethics at Cedars-Sinai. “Everyone, regardless of profession, race, religion, ethnicity or gender, is now experiencing the push and pull between individual rights and concern for protecting ourselves, and our familial and social obligations which arise from the fact that our lives revolve around living in community and with one another.”

Indeed, social obligation, Finder said, is the common thread allowing people to live in community with one another. These “obligations” run the gamut–from following the speed limit to not stealing from a neighbor’s home–and culminate with every person’s unique desire to maintain balance in the ecosystems in which they live.

Finder has found this sentiment of keeping social obligation intact especially true during his day-to-day interactions with patients, physicians, nurses and administrators at Cedars-Sinai. On any given day, he is faced with questions like, “How can I best care for my patients while also caring for, and protecting, my family when I return home,” and, “How do I find value and meaning in my daily life without the physical connection I am used to?”

So, how does Finder navigate those sensitive questions? With a lot of empathy and understanding, he said.

“Everyone providing healthcare is doing so with an aim to serve and take care of the individuals in front of them who need help,” said Finder. “Paying attention to ethics is key because frontline responders aren’t just responding to pathology, they are responding to people.”

Stuart Finder, PhD, MA
Paying attention to ethics is key because frontline responders aren’t just responding to pathology, they are responding to people.
Stuart Finder, PhD, MA

And while these healthcare providers are used to putting themselves in high-risk situations, many are now having to mentally prepare for worst-case scenarios associated with COVID-19.

“In a crisis like this, Cedars-Sinai healthcare providers have been forced to consider the real possibility of things that we otherwise never have to face, such as not having enough ventilators or supplies to treat every patient,” said Finder. “The very thought of having to choose one person over another person–let alone if we’d actually have to make such choices–is deeply unsettling.”

Finder said the notion implies our having to break the bonds of core moral commitments we have as members of a community, which flies in the face of what it means to be together as a moral community.

Being cognizant of our shared ethics–those moral commitments that shape how we interact and engage with one another–is critically important, said Finder.

“People are nurses, people are doctors and people are patients,” said Finder. “In the same way providers pay attention to the values and preferences of individual patients, our patients and their caregivers are paying attention to the values associated with their care team.” 

And here, Finder said, today is, in many fundamental ways, no different than a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago, a century ago. “We are talking about what’s really at stake in taking care of each other.”

These complex layers of recognition and compassion are at the heart of dealing with the ethical dilemmas facing our community and nation, said Finder.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made us keenly aware of how we live in connected moral community,” said Finder. “In the face of these novel hardships and as we keep physical distance from one another, it’s increasingly important to remain aware of the significance of social connection and maintain any form of it we can.”

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Healthcare heroes: Environmental Services Staff