Professor Jonathan Wolff: the moral nature of the pandemic

Has your research gone as planned in the last year? Mine, not so much. In January 2020 I took up the Alfred Landecker Chair in Values and Public Policy, at the Blavatnik School of Government, where I have been since 2016. I am a political philosopher, with a longstanding interest in the connections between philosophy and public policy; since joining Oxford I had been working on a variety of topics, such as the regulation of new technology, poverty and social inequality. My new chair is themed towards protecting democracy and minorities in an age of rising authoritarian tendencies. It is named to honour one of the many victims of Nazi Germany, which also is part of my own family history, and I was eagerly looking forward to returning to these themes following on from my Inaugural Lecture delivered on Holocaust Memorial day 2020.

Yet early in 2020 it was clear that the best laid plans … so my work took a swerve. My colleagues and I realised that COVID-19 could provide authoritarian governments with cover for repressive action. We wrote a forthcoming paper on the different ways authoritarian leaders have reacted: some adopting the ‘superman’ approach of personal invulnerability; others cracking down on protest and dissent. A different collaboration has led to another forthcoming paper looking at the disturbing patterns of inequality in COVID-19 infections and deaths.

From the start it was clear that COVID-19 was not only a public health crisis, but a moral crisis too. In the past I have worked on ethical questions in health, and I was drawn into debate after debate. The first practical question I was asked was how ventilators should be allocated if there were not enough to go around. I was also asked how, ethically, we can balance individual liberty and public health in relation to lockdowns and liberty. I’ve joined several different teams of researchers looking at different ethical questions arising from the pandemic, such as international vaccine distribution and how to manage risk. With one of these groups I co-organised a conference on the future of Global Health Justice.

I was also invited to co-chair a Working Group for the World Health Organisation, looking at ethical and governance issue for the ACT-Accelerator, which is the umbrella organisation to provide tools for fighting the pandemic. It includes COVAX, the international vaccine delivery mechanism. We have, for example, published guidance on unblinding vaccine trials, and the ethical and policy considerations concerning vaccinating populations in ways that have not been tested in clinical trials, such as delaying the second dose. Currently we are looking at whether new international structures are needed to counter future global pandemics. We have meetings in the diary until September. I’m hoping, without much confidence, that we run out of new COVID-19 topics well before then.