PPE & COVID-19 testing kits arrive in the Philippines from China, March 2020. <br>CREDIT: <a href=https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China_COVID19_test_kit_PH_donation_10.jpg>Philippines Presidential Communications Operations Office/Wikimedia (CC)</a>.
PPE & COVID-19 testing kits arrive in the Philippines from China, March 2020.
CREDIT: Philippines Presidential Communications Operations Office/Wikimedia (CC).

Ethical Dilemmas in Ensuring Human Security

Jul 28, 2020

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

Following Wednesday's session with Derek Reveron on human security in an age of a pandemic, I was struggling with how to relate our discussion with earlier conversations about the ethical choices the United States (and the rest of the world more broadly) faces in the relationship with China under the leadership of Xi Jinping. A moment of clarity came the day after during a visit to the dentist. The technician noted, in passing, that all her protective gear and equipment—absolutely necessary for carrying out procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic—were still all being sourced from China and how there were still concerns about shortages and shortfalls—and how this could affect people who need health care. And it seemed to me, at that moment, that this was a possible ethical dilemma: the need for PPE versus concerns about who was manufacturing that PPE and under what conditions. Would it be ethical to use unethically produced equipment if that would save lives?

This leads to a broader ethical consideration for policymakers and also involves real human security trade-offs. China remains a major manufacturer and producer of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. Despite talk about decoupling and finding new sources of supply, for the foreseeable future, the nature of the globalized world we live in and our decisions to embrace "just-in-time" sources of supply means that we cannot avoid this dilemma.

And let's extend the thought experiment further. Suppose major breakthroughs in dealing with and even curing COVID-19 occur in China—and that China, as a price for making these therapies available, wants other countries to cease criticism of what it considers to be its domestic affairs (in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang especially) and to stop efforts to encourage change in its political system. Would these be acceptable conditions to obtain medicines and treatments for dealing with a pandemic—to trade the "human security" of people in China in terms of their social and political freedoms to obtain health care for their own citizens?

My thinking is also shaped by consistent reports that Russian hackers are busy trying to steal as much information from Western sources about progress towards a coronavirus vaccine. This fits in with the transactional, zero-sum, great power competition worldview of Kremlin policymakers, who believe that if the United States, the UK, or the EU makes major breakthroughs first, that they would not hesitate to use that position to try and either extract concessions from Russia or to use the progress of COVID-19 in Russia to weaken Russia's international position. Hence, the apparent directive to obtain as much information so that Russian efforts to secure treatments do not fall behind—because there is no trust in any sort of impartial "international community." But would the West be justified in using similar techniques to obtain any Chinese advances in order to avoid paying any price Beijing might impose—even though these are the methods that we routinely condemn as unethical when Russian (and Chinese) entities engage in cyber-espionage?

Again, I don't have any answers, but these are some of the questions I am wrestling with after the event . . .

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