Lack of pandemic ethics set to bite Trump in election rump

3 November 2020

More than 230,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus on President Trump's watch.

US President Donald Trump has failed to protect his citizens from the ravages of COVID-19 and should be judged harshly for it on election day, according to a pandemic ethics expert at The Australian National University (ANU).

Dr Ben Bramble from the ANU School of Philosophy said Australia and New Zealand's success in containing the spread of COVID-19 has exposed the irresponsibility of President Trump and his government.

"Australia's success in achieving zero cases of community transmission of COVID-19 on Saturday vindicates the strict lockdowns plus ongoing testing and contact-tracing efforts," Dr Bramble said.

"More than 230,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus on President Trump's watch.

"The top infectious diseases adviser in the US, Dr Anthony Fauci, recently singled out Australia and New Zealand's efforts in grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

"He said Victoria's lockdown and mandated mask-wearing provided a model response for the US to follow. And he's absolutely spot on in his assessment. 

"Without the success of countries such as Australia and New Zealand, it might be possible to think that the US had been merely unlucky, rather than culpably negligent."

The question of whether to lockdown whole cities or hotspot areas has been one of the most vexing for governments around the world, including in Australia and the US.

"When considering a lockdown, governments must balance the immediate need to protect people from contracting the virus with the very real costs to the economy and society," Dr Bramble said. 

"The choice is made harder by the uncertainty about when vaccines will become available, and what kind of immunity can be expected in the community both with and without vaccines."  

Dr Bramble said that lockdowns of varying degrees, depending on the severity of the outbreaks, are the only sensible courses of action until the spread of the virus is controlled. 

"Keeping businesses open and resisting lockdowns - as has been the case in the US and other places such as the UK and Europe - does not result in economies surging back," he said.

Getting the right policy balance on lockdowns is crucial, Dr Bramble said.

"Good government policy that supports those affected by lockdowns can help to mitigate its negative effects, while measures such as mask-wearing, contact tracing and testing can support the relaxation of measures and bring back normality sooner," he said. 

Dr Bramble also took aim at UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson for his government's support of "human challenge trials" to accelerate the discovery of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. By exposing healthy volunteers to the virus in a sealed-off environment, these trials prevent the need to wait for subjects to encounter the virus in the normal course of their daily lives.

"This decision represents a huge moral capitulation by the UK Government and society at large," Dr Bramble said.

"Yes, challenge trials will save lives but only because the UK Government has done such a terrible job of protecting its citizens from the COVID-19."

Prime Minister Johnson recently announced a month-long national lockdown of England in an attempt to address the rapid rise in new daily coronavirus cases.     

Dr Bramble grapples with some of the biggest ethical challenges thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic, including lockdowns and the allocation of scarce healthcare treatments such as ventilators in his new book, Pandemic Ethics.

Pandemic Ethics is available as an open access book online. The Spanish translation of the book by Mexican philosopher Roberto Parra Dorates is also available from the same online repository.