The Ethics of a Pandemic

Portrait of Tim Stratton, smiling, and wearing a blue shirt with a colorful yellow and blue tie. The background is grey.During the spring of 2020, professor Tim Stratton, PhD, RPh, FAPhA, received an email from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities Provost’s Office regarding course content for the upcoming semester. With the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacting all aspects of life and education, the University asked all instructors to incorporate concepts around the pandemic into their courses.

“I saw this as the perfect opportunity to discuss the ethics of large-scale decisions that are impacting us right now,” said Stratton. Some of these decisions include how to best distribute a COVID-19 vaccine and how to best care for patients as emergency rooms reach full capacity.

Due to his interest in Ethics related to pharmacy practice and pharmaceuticals, Stratton began teaching ethics at the University of Montana Skaggs School of Pharmacy early in his career, despite never having formally studied the subject. While at Montana, he had the opportunity to participate in an ethics boot camp, which helped him solidify the theoretical underpinnings that are necessary in teaching ethics. Stratton is currently a professor of pharmacy practice for the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Pharmaceutical Sciences on the Duluth campus.

In his ethics course today, “students explore the ethical considerations informing personal, public policy and biomedical research decisions during a pandemic.”

The students learn about ethics from the perspective of philosophers such as Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. Students also look at ethics terminology, moral theories, and other philosophical texts.

“I try to move my students beyond, ‘Well, this is right or wrong because my gut tells me it is right or wrong,’ and I try to provide them with some ethical theory they can use to justify their recommendations for action,” explains Stratton.

Faculty and working professionals with different areas of expertise were invited to lead discussions for the class and share their experiences from their respective fields. This included discussions on infectious diseases, PPE distribution, clinical trials and social determinants of health, such as race.

The inclusion of presenters from different disciplines in the course has been invaluable. They are able to offer first-hand accounts of what is occurring in their field as a result of the pandemic. The professionals are also able to offer unique insights into the ethical implications behind the decision-making processes taking place during the pandemic.

Students apply different ethical and philosophical schools of thought to what they learn from these experts in a weekly online discussion. These discussions encourage students to engage with one another and actively think about the ethical problem-solving that must be made during a pandemic in a variety of areas.

As a result of the online discussions and learning the experiences of professionals, students learn to communicate how to apply ethics concepts to analyze the ethical dilemmas that occur during a pandemic. They are also able to determine if an ethical dilemma exists; determine the facts, values, and principles of the situation; create a goal in resolving the dilemma; generate possible solutions; and consider how the dilemma could have been avoided altogether.

“The overarching skill I want the students to leave with is the ability to look at an ethical dilemma — and it is a dilemma because somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose — and try to work out, for themselves, how this could be resolved. Hopefully the student's recommendation will meet to everybody’s satisfaction, recognizing that not everybody is going to get what they want, but coming up with a middle ground solution that will help.”