Spread of misinformation and the politicization of the COVID pandemic

More than seven months into the current COVID pandemic, a number of ethical concerns have been and are still in the process of being disputed. Some of the most substantial debates have been about the politicization of public health issues, the spread of misinformation, and personal autonomy vs duty. These ethical issues have only become more pressing with hope for a vaccine just on the horizon.

First, the politicization of COVID has also led to widespread misinformation, not only about the effectiveness of mask and social distancing guidelines, but also on the speed at which a vaccine will be available to the public. In order to keep people optimistic, the national government has put a huge emphasis on speed of production. However, with worries of speed potentially causing errors in a process that usually takes years, some pharmaceutical companies have pushed back against claims of a vaccine that will be widely available in a month’s time. The ethical debate, then, is whether it is worth withholding factual information from the public for the sake of keeping spirits high. Based on Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the act of lying is always bad in and of itself because it could not become a universal law. In the long run, such misinformation and/or a botched rollout of the vaccine could cause the public to lose trust in the national government and public-health experts, making it even more difficult to distribute vaccines in future epidemics/pandemics. 

Additionally, the debate of personal autonomy vs duty will continue to be relevant with a COVID vaccination. Currently, this debate mostly surrounds mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines. Scientific experts across the world have encouraged such measures, but because concepts of individual freedom are so instilled in the current American system, these measures have not been nationally enforced and therefore, many refuse to follow the suggested guidelines. However, I think it’s important to recognize that one’s rights are only justifiable insofar as they do not infringe upon another’s rights. Because it is scientifically proven that widespread wearing of a mask and social distancing significantly reduces spread, not taking these precautions under the justification of individual autonomy essentially infringes on others’ rights to life, which is why it is so dangerous for public health issues like this to be politicized. Similarly, in the context of a vaccine, many Americans will refuse to even receive the vaccine, so the question becomes: should receiving a vaccine be up to one’s discretion, or is it one’s duty to receive a vaccine, not only for themselves but also for prevention of spread to the rest of society? And more generally, are there situations in which individual autonomy should not be upheld, and if so, where is the line drawn?

One thought on “Spread of misinformation and the politicization of the COVID pandemic

  1. Kaeli Thompson

    In her response, Katherine succinctly comments on Sarah Zhang’s article highlighting the misinformation about Covid-19 that has resulted due to political motivations and the debate between whether to enforce paternalistic measures or protect people’s autonomy despite potentially causing harm to others. Many of the problems in America right now can be attributed to the rugged individualism that pervades our society, and in turn we are seeing the breakdown of religion, family, community. Americans desire to defy limits, not be constrained, and these three things (family, community, and religion) all place limits on people and force people to work for groups other than merely themselves and a few close family members. What people labor and advocate for in the political and scientific sphere is increasingly for the benefit of individuals and not not society at large. Politicians make promises that benefit their campaign and scientists are racing to develop a vaccine for monetary incentives and personal fame. Now, with distrust in both of these arenas that people have placed so much of their faith in and allegiance to, they are panicking and do not know what to believe. This individualism and extreme autonomy that citizens and the people we are supposed to be able to have confidence in display routinely has made the Covid-19 pandemic worse here. If we were to return to placing a greater emphasis on family, our communities, and our faiths, I wonder if people as a result would employ more paternalistic behaviors that lead to the welfare and flourishing of others like mask wearing, receiving the vaccine, and social distancing?


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