Human Rights in a Pandemic: The Need to Reassess Medicine and Public Service
The unfolding tragedy of COVID-19 reflects many social failings, strongly highlighting a lack of preparedness, which other tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 should have provided insight. Worse than not learning from these tragedies is the flagrant disregard for knowing the coming tragedies and not preparing. Prior to 9/11, FEMA predicted, “the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America: a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans” (Boaz, 2005). For decades, prior to COVID, scientists and experts warned of a “novel virus” yet governments, leaders, and the medical industry failed to prepare the public for the coming pandemic (Graff, 2020). Why past tragedies do not promote emergency planning and why credible threats are ignored lacks mystery as funding and budget constraints promote ill-preparedness. Perhaps more disturbing than financially driven unpreparedness is the underlying driver for this constraint: a belief that human rights hold less value than financial prosperity. If people have the right to live, as the US and many other countries claim, than to deny this right on a worldwide scale is global human rights violation requiring reassessment of many financially driven elements of society including healthcare and public service.
Modern healthcare, in many countries throughout the world, functions as a for-profit industry, setting the stage for human rights violations. Paradoxically, private medical organizations attempt to serve human medical needs while at the same time prosper and grow as a commercial enterprise, forcing decision making that violates human rights. Despite the healthcare system’s ethical rhetoric, the clear need to prosper or survive as a medical entity overrides the concern for human rights in the decisions made to not prepare for the pandemic. In Brazil, “Private hospitals don’t want to take anyone else in because they’re afraid of admitting a patient and then running out of oxygen again” (Phillips, 2021). Vast numbers of unprepared hospitals in Brazil, public and private, allowed for hundreds of people to die lacking basic supplies like oxygen. The soaring rates of COVID are not confined to Brazil, seen across the many countries of Latin America (BBC, 2021). Even here is the US, shortages of masks and hospital supplies underscores the half a million lives lost to COVID (BBC, 2021). Yet, the healthcare system blames this lack of preparedness on leadership, which shares much blame, but cannot hold the full responsibility in light of the healthcare system’s foreknowledge of the pandemic. The Counsel on Foreign Relations COVID taskforce clarifies this knowledge,
…that many had sounded the alarm over the years. For nearly three decades, countless epidemiologists, public health specialists, intelligence community professionals, national security officials, and think tank experts have underscored the inevitability of a global pandemic of an emerging infectious disease (Burwell, Townsend, Bollyky, & Patrick, 2020).
The majority of healthcare agencies and entities knew the reality of this coming plague and to blame government and politicians is a case of the tail wagging the dog. Government looks to the healthcare industry to provide information, making healthcare’s claims of government downplay less potent considering hospitals, clinics, and all other healthcare organizations knew the threat of pandemic and chose not to stockpile masks and other necessary equipment for economic motivations, thus increasing society’s vulnerability by relying on the “…widespread adoption of just-in-time supply chains for critical medical supplies” (Burwell, Townsend, Bollyky, & Patrick, 2020). As such, economic decisions force human rights violations because healthcare consciously chooses to not prepare knowing that people will die as a result of this lack of preparedness. At the core of this argument is a reality that privatized medicine purposely violates the human right to live, choosing instead to profit.
Government is not without culpability in COVID human rights violation and leaders time and time again chose to downplay the severity of the pandemic for politically motivated economic reasons. This choice to ignore pandemics stems from the devastating, potential economic ramifications,
A 2005 study by the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a severe pandemic could, in the United States alone, infect two hundred million people, leave ninety million clinically ill, and kill two million, resulting in a 5 percent decrease in GDP and total U.S. economic costs of $675 billion, as well as a 3 to 6 percent decline in global output (Burwell, Townsend, Bollyky, & Patrick, 2020).
COVID confirmed the factualness of this finding and that any pandemic presents an economic maelstrom with long lasting effects to be avoided at all costs. However, rather than spend money and policy efforts to prepare, leaders play a healthcare crapshoot, hoping COVID doesn’t occur or get that bad, evidenced by lack of preparedness and downplaying of the pandemic. Brazil’s president ignored public health officials, CDC, and countless experts and continued downplaying COVID’s danger, resulting in thousands of deaths (Phillips, 2021). President Trump and cabinet knew the risks and purposely misled the public,
Now it’s come to light that Trump’s appointees also played a part in the severity of the pandemic being played down to the public. According to a report conducted by The Washington Post, the Department of Health and Human Services blocked and/or altered scientist’s reports on the matter ‘to more closely align with then president Donald Trump’s more optimistic messages about the outbreak’ (Shackleton, 2021).
If public service is intended to serve the public as semantically suggested, then the right to live is perhaps the most important part of this service. The arguments that public service officials didn’t know or didn’t have all the facts fall flat considering the vast resources of governments and the decades of warning they had.
A Healthcare & Public Service Reassessment
If the primary goal of healthcare is to provide medicine and healing services, then privatized medicine in its current form is at odds with itself. The fact that healthcare knew for a very long time the inevitability of a pandemic and chose profitability over planning speaks to the current ethical conflict in medicine. This conflict alludes to many large topics of socialized medicine and ethics of for-profit medicine but in the most practical sense, COVID shows that even a highly-regulated healthcare business (as in the US) leads to human rights violations. Reassessing this system must include some form of policymaking discussion that incentivizes or mandates preparedness in the way that other medical ethics such as informed consent mandate patient awareness.
Aligning with policy reforms in healthcare that place the public welfare first, so too should public service be aligned more stringently with this goal. Many public service workers must work within ethical guidelines, such as soldiers who protect public safety and national security. If soldiers can be held accountable for crimes against humanity, then so too should public service leaders. Perhaps Donald Trump and other leaders would be less likely to downplay or ignore pandemics if harsher penalties waited.
BBC. (April, 2021). Covid: Brazil has more than 4,000 deaths in 24 hours for first time. Retrieved from BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-56657818
Boaz, D. (2005, September 19). Catastrophe in Big Easy Demonstrates Big Government’s Failure. Retrieved from CATO Institute: http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/catastrophe-big-easy-demonstrates-big-governments-failure
Burwell, S. M., Townsend, F. F., Bollyky, T. J., & Patrick, S. M. (2020). Independent Task Force Report №78 Improving Pandemic Preparedness Lessons From COVID-19. Retrieved from Council on Foreign Relations: https://www.cfr.org/report/pandemic-preparedness-lessons-COVID-19/pdf/TFR_Pandemic_Preparedness.pdf
Graff, G. M. (2020, May 8). Experts Knew a Pandemic Was Coming. Here’s What They’re Worried About Next. Retrieved from Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/05/07/experts-knew-pandemic-was-coming-what-they-fear-next-238686
Phillips, T. (2021, January 24). ‘A complete massacre, a horror film’: inside Brazil’s Covid disaster. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/24/brazil-covid-coronavirus-deaths-cases-amazonas-state?utm_term=Autofeed&CMP=fb_us&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#Echobox=1611493357
Shackleton, N. (2021, April 10). Trump Appointees Celebrated Lying To Public About COVID-19, Leaked Emails Show. Retrieved from UNILAD: https://www.unilad.co.uk/news/trump-appointees-celebrated-lying-to-public-about-covid-19-leaked-emails-show/