Why ethical frameworks fail to deliver in a pandemic: Are proposed alternatives an improvement?

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In the past decade, numerous ethical frameworks have been developed to support public health decision-making in challenging areas. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, members of the authorship team were involved in research programmes, in which the development of ethical frameworks was planned, to guide (a) the use of new technologies for emerging infectious disease surveillance; and (b) the allocation of scarce supplies of pandemic influenza vaccine. However, as the pandemic evolved, significant practical challenges emerged that led to our questioning the value of these frameworks. We now believe that a normative instrument, such as a framework, cannot adequately or reliably provide the ethical guidance that needs to be incorporated into public health decision-making during natural disasters or infectious disease emergencies. Recently it has been suggested that there are potentially more dynamic, flexible, and effective ways to navigate decisions involving complex considerations entailed in policies and practices during a public health emergency. In this paper, we first outline the key functions of a public health ethics framework, before describing why we believe it would not be fit for purpose during a crisis. We end by considering whether proposed alternative methods to promote ethical public health decision-making goals have the potential to meet these objectives.

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National Health and Medical Research Council



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