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The ethics of exploiting hope during a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has had enormous negative effects on people around the globe, including death and long-term health impacts, economic hardships including loss of savings, businesses, and careers, and the emotional costs of physical separation from friends and loved ones. Since the first emergence of COVID-19, people have hoped that these harms could be contained to specific geographic areas or eliminated by the emergence of new treatments or other public health measures. These hopes have generally not been realized but they have produced opportunities for some businesses and politicians to benefit from them.

Hope for a better life – or in this case, hope for an end to or lessening of the COVID-19 pandemic – can make us vulnerable to others by encouraging actions like buying an unproven medical treatment or putting our trust and votes in the hands of a political leader. When these hopes go unfulfilled, we face the loss of financial resources, access to more effective medical treatments, and faith in the political process.

When COVID-19 first appeared in the United States, it was not long before sellers of purported coronavirus cures began appearing online, ranging from essential oils to stem cell treatments. Most famously, hydroxychloroquine – a known effective treatment for lupus and prophylaxis against malaria – quickly went from a compound worthy of scientific investigation to a much-hyped coronavirus cure. This included pronouncements by President Donald Trump that he was “very confident” that hydroxychloroquine would be an effective COVID-19 treatment despite little supporting evidence of this and, later, announcing that he himself was taking it as “A lot of good things have come out about the hydroxy.”

Defenders of the president, including Anthony Fauci, described this approach to unproven coronavirus treatments as “talking about hope for people. And it’s not an unreasonable thing: to hope for people.” But as critics of these claims have pointed out, when these hopes are unsupported by evidence, they are false hopes. By making claims about coronavirus treatments that are not rooted in evidence, businesses marketing and selling these products and politicians hyping their potential are misleading the public about the danger COVID-19 still holds and the sacrifices that remain necessary to reduce its spread.

These critics are correct that promoting false hope in the face of this pandemic is morally problematic. However, the moral dimensions of this practice are more complex than simply misleading people or undermining their ability to consent to medical treatment. Important as these ethical issues are, in some cases sellers and promoters of unproven coronavirus treatments are also exploiting the public’s hope for an end to the pandemic. That is, they are taking advantage of these hopes for their own benefit in an ethically impermissible way.

Contemporary accounts of exploitation have typically focused on how specific conditions can give rise to an unfair distribution of costs and benefits resulting from interaction. For example, being the only person available to rescue the passengers of a sinking ship can allow that person to charge unusually high – or exploitative – rates for providing this service. In other cases, background injustices such as unfair trade practices allow businesses to systematically underpay their employees compared to a fair – or non-exploitative – global economic system.

While these accounts of exploitation have their merits, they are not the best way to explain the exploitation of hope. Rather, exploitation in this context constitutes a failure of respect for others, understood as disregarding their basic human needs. Simply put, interactions with others can create relationships of partial entrustment with dimensions of their well-being. This is especially the case for specific relationships and roles including medical practitioners and political leaders. Choosing simply to gain from rather than act on this entrustment can constitute exploitation.

Exploitation of this kind is present when people sell unproven coronavirus cures and politicians claim, without proof, that new treatments have been discovered or are right around the corner. Most recently, this kind of exploitation is actively taking place around hopes for the release of an effective vaccine against COVID-19. President Trump is now regularly promising that an effective vaccine for COVID-19 is imminent as part of his Operation Warp Speed push for vaccine development. In a recent, characteristic statement, he promised: “we’ll end up with a cure, we’ll end up with therapeutics, we’ll end up with a vaccine very soon.”

I’m a father of school-age children and son of older parents. I want to see my children back in school and playing with their friends, my parents safe, and my community back to something resembling normal as soon as possible. And so, I very much hope that a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 arrives “very soon” and is widely available across the world.

However, promising that this is the case, especially when doing so is part of a pattern of misrepresentation of the dangers of the coronavirus and steps needed to prevent its spread, is not simply misleading. It is also exploitative. Politicians who make these promises, especially with an election on the horizon, disregard the responsibility entrusted to them to foster the public’s health and instead manipulate the public for electoral advantage. As Ken Frazier, the CEO of pharmaceutical company and vaccine developer Merck put it, “when we do tell people that a vaccine’s coming right away, we allow politicians to actually tell the public not to do the things that the public needs to do like wear the damn masks.”

COVID-19 has given businesses and political opportunists the chance to use the pandemic for their own benefit. By taking advantage of our desperate hope for an end to the pandemic, they are not simply misleading us or encouraging false hope. Rather, these false hopes, planted by those willing to get ahead of or outright lie about the evidence about treatments and cures, are an opportunity for exploitation. We should clearly call this behavior out and hold these exploiters responsible for their actions.

Feature image by Marc-Olivier Jodoin via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Van

    This opinion piece was interesting. The comment about Dr. Fauci was beneath you.

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