Can the coronavirus make society more ethical?

Can the coronavirus make society more ethical?

At online philosophy confab, economists and philosophers say ethical questions should be at center of coronavirus conversation, urge government intervention in rental market

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Magen David Adom medics wearing protective clothing evacuate a suspected coronavirus patient to the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, April 20, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Magen David Adom medics wearing protective clothing evacuate a suspected coronavirus patient to the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, April 20, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

If there is any silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic, it is the wish or hope that it could ultimately lead to a more just and ethical society, as has arguably occurred with other pandemics and wars.

The topic of ethics in the time of coronavirus was the theme of an April 20 virtual conference entitled “Ethics and Judaism in a Time of Crisis” sponsored by Bar Ilan University’s Department of Jewish Thought, and broadcast to about 200 people on Zoom and Facebook.

The conference featured an economist, several philosophers and a rabbi who all spoke about what Israel, and the world, ought to do during the coronavirus crisis and speculated on the kinds of positive changes that might emerge when the plague is finally over.

Professor Noam Zohar of the Shalom Hartman Institute, who helped draft the Health Ministry’s bioethics position paper on the coronavirus, began by asking, “What can we learn from this crisis? Can more ethical behavior come out of this?”

Professor Elise Brezis, who teaches Economics at Bar Ilan, warned that the economic fallout from the pandemic in Israel will be catastrophic and said that the government has a moral imperative to intervene in the real estate market before large numbers of Israelis default on their rent payments.

Bar Ilan University Economics Professor Elise Brezis on February 20, 2020 (Screenshot zoom)

“As we begin re-opening the economy, we will see the catastrophes,” said Brezis. “We can expect 10 percent unemployment even if we open everything up now. We haven’t experienced anything like this in more than 10 years. We can expect more than a 10% decline in real wages and a government deficit of more than 10%, which means the government will not have money for all kinds of things.”

Brezis said the economic devastation could become apparent as early as the end of the month, when rent payments are due.

“People experienced economic growth all these years and they took apartments paying high rent. This virus was like a meteor that fell from the sky. Many people will not be able to pay their rent.”

Brezis argued that if the market is left to its own devices, rents will fall, but it could take a year or more, as landlords gradually realize they cannot get their asking price.

Small business owners and kindergarten teachers take part in a rally demanding financial support amid the coronavirus lockdown, across from the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“If we do nothing and leave the market alone, many apartments will stay empty and eventually rents will go down. But if the government intervenes we can achieve a new equilibrium, a new Pareto optimum, with less pain. Anyone who thinks our economy is going back to where it was before is living in a dream.”

By contrast, on March 30, the Deputy Chief Economist of the Finance Ministry predicted that Israel would experience negative 2 percent growth this year but “quickly bounce back” when the economy re-opened.

Ethics trumps liberal economics

Brezis argued that the government has an ethical obligation to intervene and help Israelis who had no way of foreseeing the economic blow they would suffer.

“Liberal economists don’t like government intervention,” she said, because like philosopher Robert Nozick, they believe that people in a free society choose their occupation and how hard they will work and the principle of freedom demands that they confront the consequences of their decisions. “But the coronavirus was a shock that no one took into consideration,” she said.

Several speakers addressed the issue of what Jewish tradition has to say about a situation where the number of critically ill patients overwhelms a hospital’s resources, even though such a scenario has not yet occurred in Israel.

They cited a well-known Talmudic parable in which two people are traveling in the desert and one has a flask of water. If both drink from it, they will both die. But if only one person drinks, he will be able to survive. Commenting on this passage, one Talmudic rabbi, Ben Petura, said it would be better for both of them to drink than for one person to witness his friend’s death. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, said the owner of the flask should drink the water because “your life comes first, before the life of your friend.”

According to Irit Offer Stark, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in New York, these two Talmudic approaches sum up the two ethical approaches to the problem of what to do when there is shortage of life-saving medical equipment.

Irit Offer Stark (Hartman Institute)

“One of these is the principle of equality, and the other is coming up with some criteria for giving preference to one patient over another.”

She said one such criterion is prognosis– how long someone is likely to live if they are given a life-saving machine. Stark cited a contemporary rabbinic scholar who believes it is acceptable to give preferential treatment to someone with a better prognosis, but argues that if there are two patients, one who is already attached to a ventilator, and another who needs a ventilator but has a better prognosis, it is not permissible to take the first patient off the ventilator.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who also spoke at the conference, said that in principle, he believes that a patient who caused their own disease, for instance, by actively flouting or encouraging his followers to flout social distancing guidelines, should get lower priority access to life-saving technologies.

“Should the person who is responsible for his illness get lower preference? Those are the ethics of the Israeli Health Basket. There is a 2009 law that if you are responsible for your own illness you make a higher co-payment,” said Cherlow.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow on April 20, 2020 (Facebook screenshot)

However, Cherlow acknowledged that practically speaking, it is very difficult to determine whether a patient caused their own medical condition.

“Let’s say we know for sure someone is responsible for their illness because they called on others to flout health guidelines and acted that way themselves, from an ethical point of view in principle we can give them lower preference. But I accept that in reality we ignore the issue of responsibility because it’s hard to determine.”

‘The poor of your city come first’

Conference participants also discussed the ethics of Prime Minister Benjamin’s reported decision to turn down a British and Spanish request for ventilators.

“We talked about caring and solidarity between individuals,” George Yaakov Kohler, the conference moderator, said. “But what about between states? Do states have an ethical obligation to help each other?”

Brezis said that it seemed reasonable to her that Israel refused to lend ventilators to other countries without first knowing how many Israel itself would need.

“There is a Jewish saying, ‘the poor of your own town come first’ We had no idea how many ventilators we would need. I am sure once we are through this, and we see that we can lend ventilators to other countries, we will.”

Brezis added that economists believe solidarity among countries only occurs during eras when there is a single hegemonic power in the world.

“In the 20th century the US was the hegemony and before that it was Britain with its Pax Britannia. But since 2010, the United States has lost its hegemony and now what we have are power battles among countries. This leads to trade wars, and what it means is that you can forget about solidarity or ethical behavior between countries.”

Arizona State University Jewish Studies professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, by contrast, was optimistic, expressing hope that the coronavirus could usher in a new global spirit of generosity.

Mark Ronson, from left, Anthony Rossomando and Lady Gaga accept the award for best original song for “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born” at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

“We used to think that globalization would solve all our problems but now we see its ugly side. We realize that resources are ultimately distributed at the state level. Still, I’m going to quote none other than the singer Lady Gaga, who hosted this lovely Global Citizen Music Festival recently. She said ‘kindness is currency of the new world.’”

Samuelson expressed the hope that we might see a greater worldwide emphasis on caring and ethical behavior after the coronavirus, as well as more urgent attention to climate change.

“Previously only profits were important. I don’t want to sound naive, but maybe now it will be different.”

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