Fair Allocation of Scarce Medical Resources in the Time of Covid-19

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Sturm College of Law


Critical care allocation, Rationing health resources, Public health, Maximizing benefits


Covid-19 is officially a pandemic. It is a novel infection with serious clinical manifestations, including death, and it has reached at least 124 countries and territories. Although the ultimate course and impact of Covid-19 are uncertain, it is not merely possible but likely that the disease will produce enough severe illness to overwhelm health care infrastructure. Emerging viral pandemics “can place extraordinary and sustained demands on public health and health systems and on providers of essential community services.” Such demands will create the need to ration medical equipment and interventions.

Rationing is already here. In the United States, perhaps the earliest example was the near-immediate recognition that there were not enough high-filtration N-95 masks for health care workers, prompting contingency guidance on how to reuse masks designed for single use. Physicians in Italy have proposed directing crucial resources such as intensive care beds and ventilators to patients who can benefit most from treatment. Daegu, South Korea — home to most of that country’s Covid-19 cases — faced a hospital bed shortage, with some patients dying at home while awaiting admission. In the United Kingdom, protective gear requirements for health workers have been downgraded, causing condemnation among providers. The rapidly growing imbalance between supply and demand for medical resources in many countries presents an inherently normative question: How can medical resources be allocated fairly during a Covid-19 pandemic?