Systemising Triage: COVID-19 Guidelines and Their Underlying Theories of Distributive Justice

Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 25 (4):703-714 (2022)
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The COVID-19 pandemic has been overwhelming public health-care systems around the world. With demand exceeding the availability of medical resources in several regions, hospitals have been forced to invoke triage. To ensure that this difficult task proceeds in a fair and organised manner, governments scrambled experts to draft triage guidelines under enormous time pressure. Although there are similarities between the documents, they vary considerably in how much weight their respective authors place on the different criteria that they propose. Since most of the recommendations do not come with ethical justifications, analysing them requires that one traces back these criteria to their underlying theories of distributive justice. In the literature, COVID-19 triage has been portrayed as a value conflict solely between utilitarian and egalitarian elements. While these two accounts are indeed the main antipodes, I shall show that in fact all four classic theories of distributive justice are involved: utilitarianism, egalitarianism, libertarianism, and communitarianism. Detecting these in the documents and classifying the suggested criteria accordingly enables one to understand the balancing between the different approaches to distributive justice—which is crucial for both managing the current pandemic and in preparation for the next global health crisis.

Author's Profile

Lukas J. Meier
Cambridge University


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