Julian Savulescu & Dominic Wilkinson
Updated on 17 March 20
Here is an excerpt:
4. Flatten the curve: the 'too little, too late' approach
There are two wishful-thinking approaches that try to make the problem go away.
The first is that we need more liberty to impose restrictions on the movement of citizens in an effort to "flatten the curve", reduce the number of coronavirus cases and pressure on hospitals, and allow everyone who needs a ventilator to get one.
That may have been possible early on (Singapore and Taiwan adopted severe liberty restriction and seemed to have controlled the epidemic).
However, that horse has bolted and it is now inevitable that there will be a shortage of life-saving medical supplies, as there is in Italy.
This approach is a case of too little, too late.
5. Paternalism: the 'greater harm' myth
The second wishful-thinking approach is that some people try to argue that it is harmful to ventilate older patients, or patients with a poorer prognosis.
One intensive care consultant wrote an open letter to older patients claiming that he and his colleagues would not discriminate against them:
"But we won't use the things that won't work. We won't use machines that can cause harm."
But all medical treatments can cause harm. It is simply incorrect that intensive care "would not work" in a patient with COVID-19 who is older than 60, or who has comorbidities.
Is a 1/1,000 chance of survival worth the discomfort of a month on a ventilator? That is a complex value judgement and people may reasonably differ. I would take the chance.
The claim that intensive care doctors will only withhold treatment that is harmful is either paternalistic or it is confused.
If the doctor claims that they will withhold ventilation when it is harmful, this is a paternalistic value judgement. Where a ventilator has some chance of saving a person's life, it is largely up to that person to decide whether it is a harm or a benefit to take that chance.
Instead, this statement is obscuring the necessary resource allocation decision. It is sanitising rationing by pretending that intensive care doctors are only doing what is best for every patient. That is simply false.
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