Ethical and moral dilemmas in the time of Covid

First-world politicians must understand no one is safe until everyone is safe

Mask-wearing in school: young children often adapt to new norms better than adults. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

In years to come, historians will no doubt look back on the Covid-19 pandemic as a period during which governments around the world faced many ethical and moral dilemmas, from the question of mandatory wearing of face masks in public places to the issue of deployment of vaccines on a global scale.

Considering the question of face masks first, it took some time for data to emerge that the virus was indeed airborne, ie was primarily transmitted by droplets and small aerosols, and that the wearing of simple cloth masks was a surprisingly efficient way of reducing community infection.

This soon led to widespread directives on the wearing of masks indoors unless eating or drinking; most citizens in Ireland adapted quickly to the new norm without much complaint, while those who didn't were soon banished to the fringes.

A different scenario pertained in primary schools for some time, mainly because of a lack of evidence that the virus was spreading there. That situation eventually changed, and in consequence face masks became mandatory in primary schools.


This imposition was once again accepted by most parents without too much complaint, despite some discussion on social media. I for one didn’t find this particularly surprising, as young children often adapt to new norms better than adults.


In any event, compliance with the wearing of masks in Ireland was reasonably high in general. This situation was quite different in some other countries, notably those with a significant distrust of federal government. For example, in some states of the United States, the wearing of face masks was immediately perceived as a political issue and was strongly resisted by many Republican voters as a gross infringement on personal liberty.

In contrast with directives on the wearing of face masks, vaccination against the virus was left as a personal choice in almost all countries. Much has been written on this subject in the opinion pages of newspapers, debating the rights of the individual versus the rights of society at large. Like many scientists, I believe the latter trumps the former – and because an unvaccinated person has a very high chance of contracting the virus and then passing it on to others (albeit at a reduced rate for vaccinated persons), what appears to be an individual’s choice in fact has consequences for many other people.

Thus, it seems to me there remains a strong case for mandatory vaccination, in the same way that we protect society with laws on safe driving and on smoking in public places.

At the time of writing, a proposal by Boris Johnson to make vaccination mandatory for employees in the UK healthcare system is being bitterly resisted by many in his own party. It's not often I find myself sympathetic to this particular UK prime minister, but it seems his attempt to take precautions against a steep rise in infections due to the Omicron variant is running foul of the unshakeable penchant of Tory politicians for libertarian values.

More importantly, all of the above ignores a much bigger ethical dilemma – the question of global vaccination against Covid-19. As several experts at the World Health Organisation have pointed out, the poorest countries of the world have been left behind as wealthy countries fend for themselves. Is it morally or ethically defensible that first-world countries are now hastily deploying booster shots for their populations while only 10 per cent of the population of Africa has received any vaccination at all?


This isn’t a question of poor government, or of rogue regimes siphoning off vaccines for cash. It is simply that, for the poorest nations of the world, the cost of vaccines, or of the patents to develop their own supplies, are unattainable.

As with climate change, the problem appears to stem from the tendency of nation states to act first in their own interest, with co-operation with other nations a very distant second.

If so, it is an approach that is as stupid as it is selfish; as the experts have pointed out time and again, the existence of large unvaccinated populations in the poorest nations greatly facilitates the emergence of new variants such as Omicron. Thus, the answer to the question, “How long will the Covid-19 pandemic last?” is devastatingly simple; the pandemic will likely last as long as it takes first-world politicians and citizens to understand that no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and is a visiting associate professor in the School of Physics at UCD