The COVID-19 Veil of (Partial) Ignorance

Sarah Zhang’s piece, “A COVID-19 Vaccine Reality Check” examines the intricacies of vaccine research, development and distribution that are often overlooked by the general public. Zhang notes that this vaccine, currently being developed at record speed, will still take many more months of trials and necessary regulatory hurdles before it is cleared for universal use on the general population. Once the vaccine is deemed safe, public health officials will have to determine who gets the vaccine as limited doses become available. This will certainly lead to a shortage of supplies as the population rushes to get vaccinated. The ethical challenges that accompany dissemination of the vaccine can be examined through a lens of Rawls’ theories of distributive justice.

Though Rawls’ theory is rooted mostly in the abstract, his Veil of Ignorance has a somewhat tangible application in the case of the current pandemic, and his principles of justice can serve as a model for the type of national collaboration needed to rebuild our health and economy. The COVID-19 virus itself acts as a Partial Veil of Ignorance. Individuals are often acutely aware of their privilege or lack thereof, and this privilege can act as a shield from COVID-19. However, as has been evident with a recent COVID outbreak in the White House, the virus does not function strictly along the same socioeconomic or racial hierarchies. Individuals must then consider themselves at equal risk to get the virus and make decisions about the virus with that possibility in mind. This acts much like the Original Position, forcing individuals to choose a path under the assumption that they do not know where they will fall in society.

Rawls’ Difference principle provides a framework that could help with vaccine distribution and the greater challenge of ending the pandemic completely. The Difference principle, states that inequalities are acceptable as long as actions are taken to remedy these inequalities. As mentioned earlier, this virus may act indiscriminately, but people are put in positions based on inequalities that may change their chances of infection. In terms of vaccine distribution, an honest effort to remedy these inequalities would include getting the vaccine to groups who have been hit the hardest by the virus so that they have a better chance of fighting off the virus and limiting spread. “The committee, which is composed of outside experts, last met in late June, when they discussed prioritizing vaccines for health-care workers, the elderly, and those with underlying conditions. They also considered prioritizing vaccination by race, given the racial disparities in COVID-19 cases” (Zhang). This comparison to Rawls’ theory brings up questions of how these disadvantaged communities were put into this position in the first place, and brings up the other component to the Differences Principle, equal opportunity to office. In giving all individuals equal opportunity to office, would these social determinants of COVID have been alleviated or better identified? Can some of these structural inequalities be resolved so this country can battle future pandemics more equitably?

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