Balancing the duty to treat with the duty to family in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic

Journal of Medical Ethics 46 (6):360-363 (2020)
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Healthcare systems around the world are struggling to maintain a sufficient workforce to provide adequate care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Staffing problems have been exacerbated by healthcare workers refusing to work out of concern for their families. I sketch a deontological framework for assessing when it is morally permissible for HCWs to abstain from work to protect their families from infection and when it is a dereliction of duty to patients. I argue that it is morally permissible for HCWs to abstain from work when their duty to treat is outweighed by the combined risks and burdens of that work. For HCWs who live with their families, the obligation to protect one’s family from infection contributes significantly to those burdens. There are, however, a range of complicating factors including the strength of duty to treat which varies according to the HCW’s role, the vulnerability of family members to the disease, the willingness of family members to risk infection and the resources available to the HCW to protect their family. In many cases, HCWs in ‘frontline’ roles with a weak duty to treat and families at home will be morally permitted to abstain from work given the risks posed by COVID-19; therefore, society should provide additional incentives to maintain sufficient staff in these roles.



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Doug McConnell
Macquarie University