Rev. Kevin Wm. Wildes, S.J., is University Professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Wildes is also former president of Loyola University New Orleans, serving in that role from 2004 to 2018. A bioethicist by training, his publications include Moral Acquaintances: Methodology in Bioethics and, as co-editor, Birth, Suffering, and Death: Catholic Perspectives at the Edges of Life.
The COVID-19 virus has affected people around the world for many months now. The virus is especially challenging for Americans for two reasons. First, Americans think about health care issues as individual problems and not problems of public health for the wider population. A patient sees the physician, receives a diagnosis, and then gets therapy for their illness. Families and friends may be involved, but the focus is on the individual patient. Americans do not think about health care in terms of public health until a crisis like COVID-19 comes along. The second reason COVID-19 is so challenging for Americans is because Americans also live in an instant culture. And so, with health care, we expect immediate diagnosis and immediate solutions. But that is not the case here.
The development of vaccines leads to further questions about the uptake of COVID-19 vaccination. Here, Catholic social teaching can be most helpful, as it asks us to think beyond the boundaries of the normal consumer model of life.
The development of vaccines leads to further questions about the uptake of COVID-19 vaccination. Here, Catholic social teaching can be most helpful.
The development and use of any vaccine is a minefield of ethical questions about its need, testing, and safety. Given both the strong anti-vax movement in society along with many people’s unwillingness to adopt simple measures to prevent spreading the virus, these questions about a vaccine are important to ask. Since a vaccine will protect not only individuals but also the people around them, it is important to understand that a vaccine program is not only about me but it is about the health of the community, which should be certainly important for any Christian.
The outbreak and spread of COVID-19 is a moral and cultural challenge for Americans. Physical distancing measures, though necessary to control the outbreak, have led to greater social isolation, anxiety, and even depression. These adverse effects highlight that humans essentially are social beings whose wellbeing is dependent upon a vibrant and healthy community. In the case of COVID-19, we need to understand that “my” health can only be understood as part of “our” health. Consequently, a key moral component about vaccines is that they are not only good for individuals, but they are also good for the community, and this is certainly the case for COVID-19.
A key moral component about vaccines is that they are not only good for individuals, but they are also good for the community, and this is certainly the case for COVID-19.
Since vaccines are developed, we now face a question of social justice: How should we distribute the vaccine? The obvious answer is everyone should get it. But, by itself, that answer is not helpful.
Normally, we deal with the distribution of goods through market forces. However, we don’t really buy health care the way we purchase other things in our lives. We need to think about the procedures for how goods in health care, such as vaccines for COVID-19, should be distributed, and here is a place where Catholic social teaching can help us to think through these questions. One could argue that it is important to begin distribution with the first responders and those on the front lines helping people, since they are both most at risk and doing a great service for others. After making sure that people on the front lines are vaccinated, we should then prioritize the most vulnerable people by age or preexisting conditions. After that we should move to a more general procedure of distribution. For general distribution, it will be important that the procedures be clear and public.
Of course, particularly in America, there will be those who want to exercise their free choice not be vaccinated, just as there are those who refuse to wear face coverings in public and argue for “the right to be left alone.” However, we should remember that this disease is not just about the individual. You need not be sick to be a spreader of COVID-19 to others, and there is conflicting evidence as to how long one is contagious with the disease.
We need to hold responsible those who willfully refuse to take medically necessary precautions or receive a vaccine, such as by denying them a bed or ventilator.
Those who refuse to take precautions such as wearing a mask or receiving a vaccination not only put themselves at risk, but risk the health of others. Furthermore, we do not have unlimited medical supplies like hospital beds and ventilators, and the cost of treatment is borne by others either in the community or in an insurance pool. An essential part of free choice is that we bear the consequences of our decisions. So, we need to hold responsible those who willfully refuse to take medically necessary precautions or receive a vaccine, such as by denying them a bed or ventilator. Otherwise, we must accept that the rest of us are providing medical “welfare” to such individuals, making us complicit in the needless sickness and deaths of others. As a community, we are and must do better.
The COVID-19 outbreak is a reminder to Americans that health care cannot be understood completely as a private good. This is a public health crisis, and we need to understand vaccination both as an obligation for one’s self, society, and the common good.