Equitable Distribution, Social Justice, and Professional Responsibility
Respond to the questions following the case:
There are extensive plans in place for dealing with a potential pandemic, such as the coronavirus. Federal and state officials in the U.S. have emergency powers that enable them to prioritize vaccine distribution and impose measures, such as business closures and quarantines. When it comes to dealing with a pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued guidelines that radically alter allocation principles in favor of preserving social functioning:
In ordinary circumstances, the distribution criterion, ‘to each according to his or her social worth,’ is not morally acceptable. However, in planning for a pandemic where the primary objective is to preserve the function of society, it is necessary to identify certain individuals and groups of persons as ‘key’ to the preservation of society and to accord to them a high priority for the distribution of certain goods such as vaccines and antiviral drugs. Identification of key individuals for this purpose must be recognized for what it is: it is a social worth criterion and its use is justified in these limited circumstances. Care must be taken to avoid extension of the evaluation of social worth to other attributes that are not morally relevant. (CDC)
These concerns seem to ignore the usual rule of rescue, where the imperatives of treatment for identifiable individuals overcome objections from opportunity costs in an emergency, as well as concern for the most vulnerable, those in greatest need, or those with the best prospects of survival. You have been asked to serve on a federal task force examining how best to distribute the coronavirus vaccine in the event of a pandemic.
1. Who should be given priority when distributing vaccinations during a pandemic and what are the benefits, burdens, and harms of these allocation decisions to the various populations?
2. Consider the justification behind the CDC’s proposed principle of social worth. Do the circumstances warrant the government’s imposition of this priority? What are the dangers in such a policy? Has the principle of social worth led to abuses of authority in the past? Would different professions advocate for different principles?