Penn President Amy Gutmann discussed the ethical and practical implications of the COVID-19 pandemic at a virtual event on Thursday.
The event, titled "Pandemic Ethics: No One is Immune," featured a conversation between Gutmann and professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy and History & Sociology of Science Jonathan Moreno about ideas from the book they co-authored in 2019, "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven But Nobody Wants to Die: Bioethics and the Transformation of Health Care in America." Gutmann and Moreno updated the book this summer with a new afterword titled "Pandemic Ethics," which focuses on the bioethical concerns that have developed since the first sign of COVID-19.
Gutmann and Moreno, who both served on former President Barack Obama's bioethics commission, discussed the role of 1968 Wharton graduate and former President Donald Trump in allowing the pandemic to escalate within the United States.
“We have had a president who denied the science — just the absolute certainty of the medical science of what was happening. He sidelined medical professionals,” Gutmann said on the panel.
Moreno added that leadership is incredibly important during the pandemic because a strong leader has the ability to make sure the most vulnerable communities have access to the care they need. He pointed to the Biden administration's commitment to increasing vaccine access as a strong example of leadership, particularly when compared to the previous administration.
At the event, the speakers also emphasized how the American ideal of liberty can be counterproductive to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 when it is prioritized over the need for unified action.
“Liberty and justice for all is a virtuous rallying cry," Gutmann said. "But, the rallying signs of ‘don’t mask my freedom’ totally conflate the value of liberty with individual license.”
Moreno offered a critique of the decrease in community engagement across most of the country, which he said has hurt the United States' ability to fight the pandemic.
In the conversation, which was moderated by NBC’s Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent and 1967 College graduate Andrea Mitchell, the panelists also discussed how the ethical implications of COVID-19 relate to social and structural disparities. Gutmann noted how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black, Latinx, and low-income individuals.
Mitchell added that there are also disparities in vaccine uptake, noting an “understandable reluctance to participate in vaccinations by minority communities with long histories, generations, centuries, really, of not having informed consent for medical treatment.”
Panelists also discussed the specific implications of the pandemic on the Penn community. Gutmann said that the administration is working to strike a balance between instituting necessary public health restrictions and enabling as much of a normal college experience as possible.
"I want to give our students the maximum ability to be able to see one another and to have some semblance of a normal life at the same time as we make sure that we help them be healthy,” Gutmann said.
College first year Matteo Akbarpour, who attended the event, said it was interesting to hear Moreno and Gutmann discuss such a wide variety of topics, adding that he most enjoyed Gutmann's remarks.
Akbarpour said that community engagement is important to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the Penn community, echoing Moreno's point about resisting the urge to prioritize oneself and instead focusing on the needs of the larger community.
“Decreasing the cases and the abundance of COVID-19, I think, has to fall on the students, and they have to do their part in making sure that people aren’t affected, and aren't being hurt by what’s happening,” Akbarpour said.
Gutmann cautioned that the COVID-19 pandemic could have long-term implications for national priorities regarding health.
“If this administration in Washington and future administrations would invest in public health, that would be the smartest, as well as the most ethical, investment that this country can make,” Gutmann said.