• Vol. 40 No. 1, 30–35
  • 15 January 2011

The Ethics of Responding to a Novel Pandemic



Recent epidemics and pandemics have highlighted a number of ethical concerns about the response to the increasing threat of emerging infectious diseases. Some of these ethical concerns are very fundamental. They include why a pandemic was declared, how much clinical information can be collected for public health without threatening patient confidentiality and how to ensure fairness in the distribution of resources. We discuss these issues and suggest approaches to resolve these dilemmas as we anticipate the next pandemic.

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”

-Albert Camus (1957 Nobel Prize for Literature)

As the microscopic ‘wild beasts’ of infectious diseases are loosed upon this world with an ever increasing frequency in recent years, there is a corresponding need for us to come up with strong guiding principles by which to tame both them and us. Camus himself in his classic novel of the plague of Oran described some of the existential issues confronting a community during an epidemic of a highly contagious pathogen.1 Highly infective viral (and occasionally bacterial) epidemics traverse a landscape that is fraught with ethically loaded decisions. This is due to their invisible but yet widespread nature and potentially catastrophic consequences, and also due to their widely differing effects on different levels of society.

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