UNESCO provides Ethical Frameworks to COVID-19 Responses

As the world is responding to the global COVID-19 pandemic, quick decision-making is vital. But it can also become a challenging exercise when ethical questions and sometimes dilemmas arise in a context of emergency where human lives and human dignity are threatened. The UNESCO Regional Office for Southern Africa (ROSA) has stepped up to provide ethical frameworks to decision-makers and frontline professionals in this difficult time.

When medical resources are scarce in times of pandemics, what are the criteria for choice and decision-making? In times of national lockdowns, whose dignity and livelihood are threatened while a society attempts to preventively save lives? Does the imperative urgent search for a cure override the regular research ethical standards? How shall we balance the fundamental rights to privacy, and the need to trace individuals with digital technologies for the sake of prevention?

These are some of the difficult questions that decision makers, healthcare professionals and researchers around the world are facing today, as the COVID-19 pandemic has put states, public health systems, economies, societies, communities, and individuals under utmost pressure.

In their Joint Statement on COVID-19: Ethical Considerations from a Global Perspective, UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) and UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) insisted that “a bioethics and ethics of science and technology perspective, rooted in human rights, should play a key role in the context of this challenging pandemic”.

At a time of uncertainty, when societies across the globe take rapid and radical measures against the pandemic, I am concerned about potential threats to human rights, privacy and ethical standards, especially towards the most vulnerable. This crisis calls for the best in humanity with ethical principles as our compass.

UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay

The recent and constantly evolving developments of the COVID-19 pandemic raise major ethical questions that will, in one way or another, transform our habits, practices, and theories. In this context, UNESCO ROSA considers it vital to assist the Member States by providing solid grounds for collective and reasoned reflections on key ethical issues pertaining to the medical treatment, the prevention and containment policies, as well as the scientific research that is more than ever needed.

Despite the lockdown measures, 20 prominent ethicists, bioethicists, philosophers, and healthcare professionals from around the world have taken up the challenge in sending from their homes a series of videos, highlighting the key ethical considerations, as well as practical recommendations to assist the frontline fighters against the virus and its long-term social impacts.

We hope members of the Ad-hoc Inter-ministerial Committees, healthcare professionals, the media, medical researchers and law enforcement officials would find these resourceful materials that could assist them in delivering their respective missions.