COVID-19 and Ethics: Health, Inequality, and Justice

Map of COVID-19 cases by zip code

Image Credit: Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the enduring fault lines of our society in stark detail, reminding us of the deadliness of systemic and institutional racism, poverty, and inequality. We have built this site as a resource for research, teaching, response, and action to reduce disparities in health, wealth, and human worth that affect us all.  It includes new references published during the COVID-19 disaster that examine the pandemic’s unfolding in the context of racism and other key social determinants of health, pointed commentaries that address resource allocation and triage justice, and previously published social histories that offer lessons on pandemics of the past.

Crisis can powerfully reveal a society’s core values and principles. As our daily lives and those we care for are impacted in every way, we must confront the inequities that determine who suffers and dies in New York City, our broader society, and across the globe. We hope that these resources, which will be updated routinely, support productive collaboration towards social justice and human health. 

Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, Ph.D.
Chief, Columbia Division of Ethics

    Ethics Guidance & Resources

    COVID Disparities: Race & Other Key Social Determinants

    May 7, 2020 | Unblinded: Systematic Racism, Institutional Oppression, and Colorblindness |

    May 7, 2020 | Coronavirus Killing Black Britons at Twice the Rate of Whites | The New York Times

    April 29, 2020 | 'A Terrible Price': The Deadly Racial Disparities of Covid-19 in America | The New York Times

    April 26, 2020 | Racial Capitalism: A Fundamental Cause of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic Inequities in the United States | Health Education & Behavior

    April 16, 2020 | The Black Plague | The New Yorker

    April 14, 2020 | Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus | The Atlantic

    April 6, 2020 | What the Racial Data Show | The Atlantic

    April 1, 2020 | Why Don't We Know Who the Coronavirus Victims Are? | The Atlantic

    April 1, 2020The Racial Time Bomb in the Covid-19 Crisis | The New York Times

    March 24, 2020 Securing Justice, Health, and Democracy against the COVID-19 Threat | Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University

    March 16, 2020As Coronavirus Deepens Inequality, Inequality Worsens Its Spread | The New York Times

    March 9, 2020The Poor and Marginalized Will Be the Hardest Hit by Coronavirus | Scientific American

    Ongoing SeriesDispatches from the pandemic | Somatosphere

    Pandemic Healthcare & Justice: Resources, Allocation, & Triage

    May 7, 2020 | Unblinded: Systematic Racism, Institutional Oppression, and Colorblindness |

    April 30, 2020 | The Harm Of A Colorblind Allocation of Scarce Resources | Health Affairs

    March 27, 20203 Human Rights Imperatives for Rationing Care in the Time of Coronavirus | The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics | Harvard Law School

    March 25, 2020The Ethical Allocation of Scarce Resources in the US During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Role of Bioethics | The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics | Harvard Law School

    March 18, 2020 Facing Covid-19 in Italy - Ethics, Logistics, and Therapeutics on the Epidemic's Front Line | New England Journal of Medicine

    Social Histories: Pandemics of the Past

    Other Resources

    Upcoming Online Events

    COVID-19: Advancing Rights and Justice During a Pandemic | Virtual Event Series | Columbia Law School

    The impacts of the novel coronavirus are being felt across the world, and in all domains of our lives, from physical and mental health, to job security, housing, and family life. Existing inequalities are more visible than ever, with the burdens of the crisis falling on some much more than others. Some governments are exploiting the crisis to crackdown on civil liberties. This series brings together scholars and practitioners to discuss the threats we face, and how we might respond.

    The series is organized by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, Duke Law’s International Human Rights Clinic, Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, and Just Security. 

    See upcoming events in this series here.

    COVID-19 Virtual Symposium Series | Columbia Zuckerman Institute

    Sharing the latest in COVID-19 research at Columbia

    Columbia University researchers and clinicians are invited to join these regular virtual symposia on COVID-19. Researchers and clinicians at all career stages are welcome to educate themselves about Columbia’s efforts against this unprecedented threat to our society.

    Symposia are held weekly on Wednesdays unless otherwise noted. Links to register for upcoming symposia are posted below.

    To attend future events, visit the COVID-19 Virtual Symposium Series page.

    To watch prior recordings of the symposium, visit the Zuckerman Institute Youtube.

    Past Event Recordings & Materials

    May 28, 2020 | Prioritizing Equity: The Root Cause | American Medical Assocation

    Presented by a partnership between the American Medical Association.

    Hear diverse perspectives on health equity, from trailblazers to current advocates, whose work is driven by the mission to address the root causes of health inequity and the social determinants of health. To watch a recording of the session, click here.

    May 21, 2020 | Equitable Readiness: Reimagining the Role of the Public Sector in the Wake of COVID-19 | Harvard University

    Presented by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

    What should the “new normal” look like? With the COVID-19 crisis highlighting long-standing social disparities and vast inequities, some argue that now is the time to imagine an adaptive public health infrastructure that can readily respond to this and future epidemics. In this Radcliffe webinar, leading scholars and practitioners engage in a conversation about how to leverage the policy opportunities the epidemic presents for bold changes that could support a sustained and equitable public health response. 


    María Belén Power, associate executive director, GreenRoots, Inc.; representative, Green Justice Coalition

    Daniel Carpenter, faculty director of the social sciences program, Radcliffe Institute, and Allie S. Freed Professor of Government, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences

    Sara Bleich, Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor and social sciences advisor, Radcliffe Institute, and professor, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

    Moderated by Janet Rich-Edwards, codirector of the science program, Radcliffe Institute, associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, and associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


    Free and open to the public. To view this event online, individuals will need to register via Zoom.

    May 21, 2020 | Responses to Covid-19: Legal and Ethical Perspectives | Columbia University

    Hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, non-governmental agencies providing health care and many other organizations are wondering whether to change their standards of practice due to Covid-19, but often face legal, ethical and bioethical challenges in doing so. How do they make these decisions? Join us for an interactive discussion with a distinguished panel, including, among others:

    Unni Karunakara, former International President, MSF

    Amrit Ray, MD, Global President, R&D and Medical, Pfizer Upjohn

    David Hoffman, JD, Columbia University, Masters of Bioethics Program

    Gloria Ramsey, JD, RN, Associate Dean, Johns Hopkins School of Nursing

    Robert Klitzman, MD, Moderator

    To register for free, click here.

    May 21, 2020 | Racial Equity During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic | National Low Income Housing Coalition

    Presented by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

    Join Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, one of America’s foremost historians and leading antiracist voices, and Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the NLIHC, for a conversation on how our housing and homelessness response to COVID-19 must center racial equity and address systemic inequities and discrimination. #RacialEquityandCOVID

    To find out more about this event and register, click here.

    May 19, 2020 | Slavery, Race and Covid-19 | NUI Galway Moore Institute

    Presented by the NUI Galway Moore Institute as part of the COVID-19 Response Webinar.

    The unfolding coronavirus crisis ahs revealed deep structure of inequality manifested in the death toll in the United States and other counties. This seminar examines patterns of racism and legacies of slavery that have informed the pandemic, especially in the US and UK. Participants include Enrico Dal Lago (NUI Galway), Eric Foner (Columbia), Kerry Sinanan (University of Texas at San Antonio), and Koritha Mitchell (Ohio State University).

    To watch a recording of this webinar, click here.

    May 14, 2020 | Pandemic Means the Whole World: COVID-19 and Global Bioethics | Georgetown University

    Presented by the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University.

    Pandemic means the whole world. Our webinar turns the focus of discussion toward concerns raised by the COVID-19 / new corona virus pandemic for the people outside the Global North. Many regions of the world face the virus with few high-tech medical resources, strained or absent healthcare options, more density of populations or populations on the move, and existing socio-economic disadvantages.

    Moderated by bioethicist Daniel Sulmasy, expert panelists Mark Dybul, Lawrence Gostin, and David Hollenbach will raise key issues, offer insights and discuss a range of medical, legal, public health and social justice concerns. Claudia Ruiz Sotomayor reports on the pandemic for Mayan communities in Mexico and Alban Pascal Noudjom Tchana considers its impact on the citizens of Cameroon.

    For a full recording of the event, click here.

    May 1, 2020 | Health, Inequity, and COVID-19

    Presented by Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

    International experience in recent months has powerfully illustrated that the COVID-19 virus has particularly harmful and disproportionate effects on already vulnerable populations. Mary T. Bassett and Khalil Gibran Muhammad discuss inequity and public health in the time of COVID-19, exploring how the virus encounters existing inequalities, replicates these inequalities, and, in many cases, amplifies them.

    To watch the full recording, click here.

    April 16, 2020 | Health & Human Rights in the Era of Covid-19: What are the Ethical Issues?

    Presented by the Columbia University School of Professional Studies Program in Bioethics

    To watch the recording of the online panel discussion about human rights and the ethical questions emerging in the COVID-19 emergency, click here.

    April 16, 2020 | Racial Disparities and COVID-19

    Presented by Physicians for Human Rights.

    COVID-19 is inequitably impacting racial and ethnic sub-populations in the United States, with African Americans and other underrepresented groups contracting and dying of COVID-19 at markedly disproportionate rates.

    To learn more and watch other past webinars on COVID-19, visit PHR's dedicated COVID-19 page.

    April 14, 2020 | Disability, COVID-19, and Triage: Exploring Resource Allocation and the Framing of Disability

    Presented by The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

    The COVID-19 Pandemic is raising difficult to answer questions regarding the allocation of scare resources, such as ventilators. Providers are struggling to triage access to ventilators ethically. Some have argued that we should consider health status and maximizing health outcomes. Others counter that using health status to determine access would discriminate against people living with disabilities, relegating them to second class status.

    The Petrie-Flom Center’s book Disability, Health, Law, and Bioethics (Cambridge University Press, April 2020) seeks to understand how our framing of disability influences medical and legal policies such as resource allocation. To mark the launch of our volume and to reflect the COVID-19 health care landscape, we gathered several of our authors and editors to explore the question of ventilator allocation in regard to people living with disabilities. Our panel considered how our framing of disability influences triaging choices and how we can best ensure the ethical and non-discriminatory distribution of limited, life-saving resources.

    Watch the full recording here.

    Ongoing Virtual Series | COVID-19 Conversations

    Presented by a partnership between the American Public Health Assocation and the National Academy of  Medicine.

    To read transcripts and see materials from past webinars, visit COVID-19 Conversations.

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