Setting Priorities Fairly in Response to Covid-19: Identifying Overlapping Consensus and Reasonable Disagreement

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Sturm College of Law


Critical care allocation, Rationing health resources


Proposals for allocating scarce lifesaving resources in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic have aligned in some ways and conflicted in others. This paper attempts a kind of priority setting in addressing these conflicts. In the first part, we identify points on which we do not believe that reasonable people should differ-even if they do. These are (i) the inadequacy of traditional clinical ethics to address priority-setting in a pandemic; (ii) the relevance of saving lives; (iii) the flaws of first-come, first-served allocation; (iv) the relevance of post-episode survival; (v) the difference between age and other factors that affect life-expectancy; and (vi) the need to avoid quality-of-life judgments. In the second part, we lay out some positions on which reasonable people can and do differ. These include (i) conflicts between maximizing benefits and priority to the worst off; (ii) role-based priority; and (iii) whether patients' existing lifesaving resources should be subject to redistribution.