As Covid-19 vaccines become available, health officials, policymakers, philanthropic organisations and people like you and me are being confronted with numerous ethical challenges and moral dilemmas.
Who should get the vaccines first, and how long should others have to wait? But even if we agree on who to prioritise within our countries, what about the inequality of access to vaccines between countries?
Some scholars claim that rich countries have a moral responsibility to subsidise vaccination programmes around the world. But even if we agree to sacrifice our own interests for the time being, how best can this be achieved? And what types of ethical principles such as fairness, equity, effectiveness and reciprocity should we apply?
In a recent conversation, Aksel Braanen Sterri, a political scientist and philosopher told me that Norway should donate all its vaccines to low-income countries. He also made a strong argument for why Norway should be at the back of the vaccine queue rather than being in front.
The ethical reasoning behind this is as follows. The basic principles for the distribution of vaccines within affluent countries such as Norway should also be applicable for vaccine distribution between countries.
Thus, levels of vulnerability to Covid-19 ought to be the main criterion for a global vaccine policy. If this is acceptable, then we should distribute all available doses of the vaccines to the most vulnerable countries in the world—in the same way as rich countries prioritise vulnerable groups within their borders.
Aksel argues that while elected politicians have a special responsibility for the well-being of their own citizens, this does not mean that Norwegian citizens are the only ones towards whom Norwegian politicians have a responsibility.
Indeed, according to this view, all of us have a moral responsibility to those that are most vulnerable, but this obligation is particularly strong in relation to those who do not have the purchasing power to access expensive remedies.
There is an additional element to this argument. Even if one is not motivated by ethical arguments, rich countries ought to be at the back of the vaccine queue out of pure self-interest. Helping countries that cannot otherwise secure enough doses of the Covid-19 vaccine ought to be viewed as an investment in our common future rather than an act of charity.
We discussed the role of philosophers in addressing current global challenges, the various proposals currently doing the rounds on how best the world can distribute Covid vaccines, why rich countries ought to subsidise or donate vaccines to needy countries and what constitutes “vaccine justice”. You can listen to our conversation at: https://in-pursuit-of-development.simplecast.com