Friday, 30 October 2020 11:40

Ethics crucial for pandemic resolution

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Ethics crucial for pandemic resolution NSTP file picture

The Covid-19 pandemic came to us as a surprise. What started as a domestic outbreak of a flu virus has now escalated into a global crisis of health, economy and socio-politics.

It has not since been a year when the first case was reported in Wuhan, China, but it seems that our life before the pandemic has become so distant.

The "new normal" has brought another problem — moral dilemma. In confronting a crisis of this magnitude, it is nearly impossible to live up to all of our moral convictions and beliefs. We are always confronted with contradicting choices.

Choosing one will lead to the abandoning of the other. Take for example the healthcare services in which our medical practitioners have to leave behind their long-held practice in clinical ethics in favour of public health ethics that are better suited with the global pandemic situation.

The goal of public health ethics is to protect the collective interest of society and prioritise the need of the many over an individual patient. Therefore, decisions such as rationing medical resources and postponing nonessential procedures will be made based upon calculated, strategic, and utilitarian choices to accomplish this goal.

But, it is not without a cost. They are carried out at the expense of established clinical ethics focusing on the individual doctor relationship, which promises the best medical treatment and resource allocation based on the patient's best individual interests, regardless of the situation.

Another example is the case of developing a vaccine. While it is unmistakable that the only way out is to have a vaccine, enormous pressure may lead to cutting corners and hastening its production, resulting in unsafe vaccine with hidden risks.

On the other hand, adhering and following conventional testing procedures will take years, with the risk of sacrificing millions more. The same goes for the economy, raising the dilemma between "lives" and " livelihoods".

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the government to introduce movement control orders, quarantine, and border closing to contain the spread of the virus. While they were undoubtedly taken in good faith to protect lives, they are causing negative economic repercussions.

Last but not least, the Covid-19 crisis also calls into question some important fundamental values that we hold dearly.

Political and constitutional values such as human rights, liberties, and respect for privacy are at risk to be traded off with national security and effective containment actions.

This happens as this pandemic is perceived as a precarious threat to our national security that justifies the government's security measures in the form of closing national borders, cracking down on illegal immigrants, restricting movement, and public surveillance.

These actions, while arguably necessary to some extent, may open the floodgates to xenophobia, far-right movement, restriction of freedom, and privacy concerns.

Hence, all of these conflicts and tensions in our "new normal" life can turn into moral distress. However, Islam provides us with moral and legal guidance.

This guidance, care and respect for others, and the prevention of harm to them can provide us with important inputs and guidelines in managing this moral dilemma.

First, Islamic ethics, with the maqasid al-shariah at its core, teaches us to give preference to the higher objectives and spirits behind the law over its literal and technical senses.

Thus, in the event of a contradiction between our current practices in managing this pandemic with the spirit of Islam — such as the preservation of religion, life, intellect, progeny and property — such practices will have to be amended accordingly.

Second, Islamic ethics offer a sophisticated multi-dimensional structure of priorities, ranging from the highest level of necessities (daruriyyat) to needs (hajiyyat) an d then luxuries (tahsiniyyat).

It will then simulate the various situations in which these values conflict with each other, and then provide resolutions and principles on which values have to be prioritised (fiqh al-awlawiyyat).

Lastly, Islamic ethics also limit the state's preventive actions. It is only allowed to interfere as much as needed and should not take advantage of the situation to suppress individual freedom and liberty.

To conclude, although our struggle with Covid-19 is far from over and the proposed solutions here are by no means conclusive, this deliberation offers a departure point towards a more meaningful discussion on the role of ethics in post-pandemic crisis resolution.


The writer is a Special Officer to the CEO of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia and analyst. His email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Published in: New Straits TIme, Friday 30 October 2020