Bioethics for Breakfast: Social Determinants of Elders’ Health

Bioethics for Breakfast: Seminars in Medicine, Law and Society

Anne K. Hughes, PhD, MSW, and Dawn Opel, JD, PhD, presented at the December 2 Bioethics for Breakfast session, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Social Determinants of Elders’ Health.” Bioethics for Breakfast is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman. This session was the first of a two-part series on the theme “Paradoxes of Aging: Living Longer and Feeling Worse.” The presentation portion of the session was recorded and is available to watch on our website.

Elders in the U.S. contend with chronic illness, disability, mental health disorders, and a host of other co-morbid conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the complex web of social, medical, and economic challenges faced by the elderly.

Anne K. Hughes, PhD, MSW, highlighted common concerns about aging and explained how those concerns affect LGBTQ+ older adults: cognitive and/or physical decline, isolation, financial/legal, living situations, and meaning making/legacy. Hughes shared the importance of health professionals asking questions rather than making assumptions when working with sexual and gender minority older adults. She also noted research showing health disparities at greater levels when compared to heterosexual older adults, even noting that much of the research data currently available is not inclusive of bisexual, transgender, or gender non-conforming older adults.

Dawn Opel, JD, PhD, presented on older adults and food insecurity in America. She addressed the invisibility of older adults experiencing hunger in America, lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, programs and services available for older adults in Michigan, and the future of food security for older adults. Regarding food insecurity, many older adults are living alone, and they may use trade-offs such as skipping their grocery trip to instead pay the rent or utility bill. The pandemic also made visible the reliance on unpaid caregiving and volunteerism for access to food. Sharing data that projects more than 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over the age of 65 by 2030, Opel asked attendees to consider the actions needed now to invest in infrastructure for the future.

Discussion during the Q&A portion included the concept of aging in place, with multiple attendees sharing personal anecdotes about older adults in their lives who wish to remain independent in their homes. Broadly, both speakers touched on the importance of having conversations early on with older adults in our lives, in order to be as prepared as possible before there is a crisis situation. Discussion also touched on the technological divide, having conversations with primary care physicians, and potential policy improvements that could improve the burden on those in paid and unpaid caregiving roles.

About the speakers

Anne K. Hughes, PhD, MSW, is Director and Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Michigan State University. She was previously the director of the PhD program. She is co-founder of the MSU Consortium for Sexual and Gender Minority Health Across the Lifespan, an interdisciplinary research consortium established within the College of Social Science in 2019. Prior to coming to MSU Dr. Hughes had 14 years of clinical practice experience. Dr. Hughes’ research focuses primarily on older adults with chronic conditions and improving healthcare services for underserved older adults, particularly LGBTQ+ older adults. Dr. Hughes has received external funding for her research from: Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), the John A. Hartford Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. She is a Hartford Faculty Scholar in Geriatric Social Work and a Fellow in the Gerontological Society of America.

Dawn Opel, JD, PhD, is Director of Research & Strategic Initiatives and General Counsel of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, where she oversees research, data, legal, and compliance functions of the organization. A lawyer and researcher, her career has included positions in academic, nonprofit, and government sectors, and broadly, she works to build strategic partnerships for social innovation. Dr. Opel’s particular focus is developing capacity in Michigan for food-as-medicine interventions in the clinical setting, and she is currently involved in the implementation and sustainability of fresh food pharmacies for chronic disease self-management in federally-qualified health centers (FQHCs). She holds a PhD from Arizona State University and a JD from the University of North Carolina School of Law. Dr. Opel is adjunct assistant faculty at Michigan State University in the College of Arts & Letters.

Antiseptic Rhetoric: Crisis Standards of Care

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Leonard M. Fleck, PhD

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to public attention the phrase “crisis standards of care.” This is not a phrase that is especially meaningful to most members of the public. My concern, speaking as a medical ethicist, is that it is not intended to be especially meaningful for the broad public. Instead, it is what I would describe as a bit of “antiseptic rhetoric” intended to cleanse the public conscience of otherwise troubling ethical choices health professionals might be required to make during a pandemic.

Of course, antisepsis is generally good. It prevents potentially life-threatening infections. However, very aggressive antisepsis aimed at creating a hyper-sterile environment can result in an immune system that is “uneducated,” ill-prepared for a powerful pathogen that manages to elude our antiseptic efforts. My concern is that the use of antiseptic rhetoric around COVID-19, as with the phrase “crisis standards of care,” weakens the capacity of the public to understand and thoughtfully address the troubling and tragic ethics issues generated by COVID-19 in both the health care and political sectors of our social life.

Hospital bed illustration
Image description: A grey and white illustration of a single empty hospital bed sitting underneath a light that is shining down onto the bed. Image source: Izwar Muis/Pixabay.

The antiseptic meaning of “crisis standards of care” is that there are too many patients who need care all at once, and consequently, the normal expectations for timely and effective care will not be met. Delays will occur. As a patient, you might be parked in a hallway on a gurney for a few hours until a room becomes available. This is annoying, but hardly cause for an anxiety attack. However, this is very far removed from the reality that patients are facing in Idaho, Montana, Georgia, Florida, and several other states where the Delta variant of COVID-19 has overwhelmed the hospital system.

I was prompted to think about crisis standards of care by a recent article in the New York Times, “’I just cry all the time’: Non-Covid patients despair over delayed care.” The article tells the story of Mary O’Donnell, age 80, who needed a five-hour back surgery procedure that was postponed indefinitely due to the hospital being filled up. She was going to need multiple days in the hospital after surgery. Her concern was that she would be permanently impaired if the surgery were not performed very soon.

Of course, the person who would occupy the bed she needed would be a COVID-19 patient with a life-threatening condition. That person might survive, but maybe not. Mary O’Donnell did not have a life-threatening condition. She was “merely” at risk for losing the functioning of her legs. That is a terrible sentence to write, but it was the medical and ethical reality. This is rationing: painful, tragic, unfortunate, and sometimes unjust.

Here is another headline that better elucidates the meaning of crisis standards of care. “After 169 hospitals, a dad finally got the Covid-19 care he needed—and changed dozens of skeptics’ minds.” Robby Walker, age 52, needed ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) to save his life—to serve as an artificial heart and lungs for him. That was in Florida. He ended up being transported by air to a hospital in Connecticut that had an ECMO bed. Readers should realize that this could hardly be the fate of hundreds of other COVID-19 patients needing ECMO. Reed Hickson, age 49 and the father of twelve in Texas, was unable to find an available ECMO bed in all of Texas. He died. That is what “crisis standards of care” means in practice.

Patients with advanced cancers or advanced heart disease needing surgical treatment will have those surgeries postponed with unknown consequences. Maybe a delay of those weeks will make no difference for that cancer; it will be effectively managed. Maybe the cancer has already metastasized, and the fate of that patient is sealed. Maybe the cancer will metastasize in those intervening weeks. Again, this is what “crisis standards of care” means in practice. It is health care rationing that necessarily implies problems of health care justice.

If there are not enough ICU beds or ventilators, then those scarce life-saving resources will go to patients who are judged most likely to survive. How is that judgment made? Can the public be confident it is made fairly? Is it ethically more important to save the most lives or the most life-years? This is a critical distinction.

Another phrase that has attracted some media attention pertains to a hospital invoking “universal do-not-resuscitate orders” for COVID-19 patients. Some right-wing media sites have warned COVID-19 patients that they must stay away from hospitals because hospitals have agreed not to treat COVID-19 patients but just let them die. No doubt those same sites are falsely pushing ivermectin as a treatment you can administer to yourself in the quiet of your own bedroom. What the phrase “universal do-not-resuscitate order” does mean is that if a COVID-19 patient codes in the ICU, there will be no effort to resuscitate them. The justification for a policy that would likely elicit anxiety, anger, and horror in much of the public is that such an effort would put at risk the lives of the health professionals attempting that effort. Further, the patient would most likely, not certainly, die despite that effort.

Here is a hard question: if you are a patient with a cancer or advanced heart disease needing surgery that has been postponed, how should you feel about that policy? You can survive, you want to survive, and you need that bed. Alternatively, if you are a COVID-19 patient in the ICU with a somewhat uncertain prognosis, how should you feel about that policy? These are the painful realities of crisis standards of care. This is health care rationing.

These are policies and policy choices that need public awareness, public understanding, and public legitimation. This requires hospitals and political leaders willing to take the risks associated with informing and engaging the public in discussion of the hard ethical choices that COVID-19 has thrust upon us. Antiseptic language may be innocuous (and politically desirable). However, the immune system of a democratic society, public reason, requires robust, honest, exacting language to strengthen its ability to resist infectious obfuscation and viral disingenuousness.

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Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is Professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The authors will respond to all comments made by Wednesday, October 20, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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Continue reading “Antiseptic Rhetoric: Crisis Standards of Care”

Don’t Scapegoat Immigrants for the COVID-19 Pandemic Surge

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Larissa Fluegel, MD, MHS, and Sean A. Valles, PhD

The U.S. COVID-19 pandemic summer surge has inspired a public search for answers as to why wide vaccine availability has not been sufficient to prevent a new wave of infections. Certain answers are plausible, such as blaming the surge on some combination of the more infectious delta variant spread, vaccination rates remaining too low on average and excessively low for some populations, a relaxation of formal disease control restrictions, as well as more nuanced informal social habits such as diminished mask-wearing, more indoor parties, etc. Yet others cast blame onto a much less plausible target: immigrants.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis blames President Joe Biden for being too lax on the southern U.S. border immigration enforcement, suggesting that Biden has been “helping [to] facilitate” the pandemic. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas took things further, ordering that state law enforcement could “begin pulling over vehicles whose drivers are transporting migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19.” Both of these responses to the pandemic spread are unethical, incoherent, and ineffectual. Accusations against Latin American immigrants are unethical and misguided.

For many reasons, blaming those immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border for negative health outcomes is problematic. Such targeted blame is dehumanizing to immigrants—it promotes negative stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination, mistreatment and health disparities, and by extension, it is detrimental to non-immigrants’ health. Moreover, it is a form of blame shifting that prevents authorities and the public from effectively taking responsibility for community-wide problems.

Image description: a black and white photo of an individual holding a sign that reads “Hamilton was an immigrant. Einstein was a refugee.” They are wearing a long jacket and a tricorne hat. Image source: Victoria Pickering/Flickr.

Blaming immigrants is dehumanizing

There is a long history of dehumanizing immigrants to the U.S., although such dehumanization is generally done selectively. Immigrants such as Charlize Theron and Albert Einstein are treasured, while others are despised for having the “wrong” skin color, accent, occupations, and so on. Dehumanizing and targeting immigrants has been part and parcel of U.S. history, from 19th century church-burning riots that terrorized Irish immigrants, and the overtly racist Chinese Exclusion Act, to current cases of medical abuse and neglect in migrant detention centers. Philosopher David Livingstone Smith traces these sorts of systemic cruelties to a process of dehumanization in which we find ways of convincing ourselves to think of certain groups of people as somehow less than human. To convince ourselves we seek justifications such as depicting immigrants as vermin infecting or invading a country. According to Livingstone Smith, such depictions then give us permission to act aggressively against those groups and to “exclude the target of aggression from the moral community.”

In sum, we find ways to give ourselves permission to dismiss the ethics of how we treat certain groups of people. With such misplaced permission, we decide that certain groups, in this case select immigrants, don’t count as fellow humans worth caring about, and so abuse doesn’t really count as abuse. It’s this sort of misguided logic that also explains Governors Abbott and DeSantis’ school mask requirement bans. Paradoxically, their purported attempt to reign-in government restrictions on individuals simultaneously reveals disregard for the ways in which harsh immigration enforcement strategies negatively impact the lives of immigrants.

Blaming immigrants promotes unrealistic, unhealthy negative stereotypes

Blaming immigrants promotes negative stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination, social mistreatment, and unjust health disparities. Since early in the pandemic, anti-Asian racism and xenophobia mixed in with COVID-19 politics has led to a worldwide phenomenon of hate crimes against anyone appearing to be of Asian descent, and vicious expressions of misguided blame directed at anyone from the same vague region as where the pandemic originated. Historically, and erroneously, people in the U.S. have associated immigrants with human disease and contagion. Immigration authorities have long scrutinized immigrant health when deciding who can enter or remain in the U.S. Additionally, there is a false perception that immigrant illnesses are predominantly acquired before entry to the U.S.; it is instead most often the case that immigrants tend to struggle with worsening health as they spend more time adopting U.S. cultural norms, including unhealthy eating habits.

Stereotypes about “unsanitary” immigrants represent cruel and unjustified blame shifting. For example, consider meat processing plants which have been hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks. Staffed predominantly by an immigrant workforce, those workers face abusive and unsanitary working conditions (an open secret in the industry for over a century) that foster disease outbreak. Laying blame for this suffering on immigrant workers, or immigration generally, is a horrendous ethical mistake. Statements by public figures like Governors Abbott and DeSantis contribute to morally skewed views about immigrant health.

Unhealthy negative stereotypes hurt people and cost all Americans a lot of money

Another pragmatic consideration is how those immigrants who do fall ill interface with the U.S. health care system. Negative stereotypes about immigrants among health care providers lead to substandard and/or improper care. In fact, the anticipation of being mistreated coupled with fear among those with an undocumented immigration status serve to dissuade immigrants from seeking needed care. Such fears might even discourage some from getting the COVID-19 vaccine. In this way, blaming immigrants contributes to worsening the pandemic. (A related irony is that nearly 1 in 3 doctors are themselves immigrants.)

There is a public health concern to this sequence. Delaying or avoiding care harms immigrants as well as those around them. To avert transmission, contagious diseases need to be treated in a timely manner. Not doing so leads to an underestimation of actual disease distribution and burden. A correct estimation is necessary to determine the right amount of resources and timely measures necessary to contain them. It is a waste of public resources to have those in need use emergency rooms for care that, if identified and delivered in a timely manner, could have been averted before the situation worsened. Part of the motivation for the Affordable Care Act was to  increase access to regular necessary care, yet undocumented immigrants were excluded from benefitting from the Act, despite the fact that providing coverage would have improved public health and probably saved the public money as well. For example, consider strep throat, a condition that is easily treatable with inexpensive antibiotics. Left untreated, strep throat can get complicated and potentially cause serious long-term heart problems. Untreated strep throat might drive a person to seek care in an emergency department. Yet another example is an untreated dental cavity that might lead to a dental abscess or a deep skin infection of the mouth and neck, again possibly resulting in an emergency room visit. Once there, correct diagnosis would require fluid cultures and expensive MRI or CT imaging. The cost of delayed care is borne by all of us. Some combination of insurance companies, hospitals, or government pay those excess fees, passing along costs to everyone else.

Speaking out

It is unfortunately fashionable across the U.S. and Europe to blame immigrants for social problems. Economic and social problems are quickly blamed on immigrants. Conversely, the available evidence points to immigrants being economically and socially beneficial to their respective new country.

We, the authors, come to this issue as people who have committed their professional lives to making healthcare and health policy more humane—seeking to help our future physicians and our colleagues treat patients as complex human beings deserving of care, rather than revenue streams to be maximized. Similarly, we see immigration discussions falling prey to the same mistake so common in healthcare, wherein powerful decision-makers, such as politicians, lose sight of their shared humanity with the people whose lives depend on them. We need to demand better from our political leaders and importantly, we need to speak out when politicians dehumanize immigrants.

Larissa Fluegel photo
Sean A. Valles photo

Larissa Fluegel, MD, MHS, is an Assistant Professor with the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University where she teaches social context of clinical decisions.

Sean A. Valles, PhD, is Associate Professor and Director of the Michigan State University Center for Bioethics and Social Justice. He is author of the 2018 book Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era (Routledge Press).

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The authors will respond to all comments made by Thursday, September 2, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

Continue reading “Don’t Scapegoat Immigrants for the COVID-19 Pandemic Surge”

Dr. Valles gives “culture of health” seminar for The London School of Economics and Political Science

“Housing security’s place in a ‘Culture of Health’: Lessons from the pandemic housing crises in the U.S. and England”

Sean Valles photo

Center Director and Associate Professor Sean A. Valles, PhD, gave a seminar last month for The London School of Economics and Political Science Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method. Valles presented “Housing security’s place in a ‘Culture of Health’: Lessons from the pandemic housing crises in the U.S. and England” as part of the department’s “Conjectures and Refutations” series.

Dr. Valles has provided a summary of his talk below. A recording is available to watch on YouTube via the LSE Philosophy channel.

People experiencing homelessness had been suffering extreme health and economic hardships before the COVID-19 pandemic, and even more so during it. The notion that housing is a human right is gradually picking up momentum in both the U.S. and England. And that ethical recognition is combining with a growing set of scientific evidence of the effectiveness of “housing first” policies, which provide stable long-term housing to people experiencing homelessness, rather than shuffling people in and out of temporary shelters. Every person ethically deserves safe housing, and failing to provide this has also resulted in a system that cruelly (and at great expense) pushes suffering people into emergency rooms and prisons.

England earned praise for its “Everyone In” program, which was aimed to provide safe housing for every person experiencing homelessness beginning early in the pandemic. By contrast, cities across the U.S. continued defying CDC recommendations by bulldozing temporary encampments set up by people experiencing homelessness, including in Lansing. Meanwhile both the U.S. and England banned evictions of renters who fell behind on their rent during the pandemic, but both also failed to make realistic long-term plans for how to secure housing and income for people who have no way of paying past-due rent once the eviction bans expire.  On both sides of the Atlantic, the pandemic inspired governments to stumble toward recognizing how essential housing is for good health in general and also dealing with this fact. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum, and push for universal housing, since trying to survive without secure housing was already difficult before the pandemic, and will remain so after it ends.

Pandemic and Endemic COVID-19 Ethics: Lessons from the history of tuberculosis

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Karen M. Meagher, PhD

Recent U.S. headlines are starting to reflect a dawning public awareness that health experts have long suspected: COVID-19 might be with us for a long time. In January 2021, almost 90% of coronavirus expert respondents to a poll by Nature considered it “likely” or “very likely” that the virus will continue to circulate somewhere on the globe for years to come. As vaccine rollout continues, the crisis in India has yet again revealed the devastating consequences of pandemic mismanagement. Only two infectious diseases have been successfully eradicated globally: smallpox, and the lesser-known rinderpest. A world in which COVID-19 is endemic might be one that requires long-term public health planning and requires bioethics to recalibrate. The global health and social impact of the pandemic makes COVID-19 challenging to compare to other infectious diseases. However, ongoing multidisciplinary analysis of tuberculosis (TB) provides one demonstration of the possible contributions of bioethics looking forward.

Pandemics as social levelers

A bacterial as opposed to viral infection, TB outbreaks peaked in different places across the world throughout the 1700s and 1800s (Barnes, 2020). During such periods, TB affected people across social strata. Affluent instances of TB contributed to the emergence of social narratives romanticizing TB as a condition striking those with a more sensitive and artistic temperament (Bynum, 2012). Prior to the emergence of germ theory, TB was considered a hereditary condition, running in families with such temperamental proclivities. The notoriety of some TB patients bears resemblance to early celebrity cases of COVID-19 that circulated on social media, normalizing infection while illustrating both recovery and vulnerability. The social and cultural variability of such notoriety is also significant, with India’s highly publicized celebrity suicides during lockdown requiring more analysis to tease apart the mental health impact of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the death of well-known human rights advocates, such as actor Vira Sathidar, from COVID-19 has prompted reflection on the pandemic’s cost to India’s creativity in addition to the devastating loss of life.

Outdoor Play and Tuberculosis print from 1922
Image description: Print from 1922 shows a girl sitting by a window watching children playing outdoors. The title reads “Outdoor Play and Tuberculosis,” with the text: “Outdoor play is as necessary to health as food or sleep. At home, let the children play in the yard or on a well-guarded roof. At school, ample open air playgrounds must be provided. The city that fails to provide public playgrounds may be forced to provide tuberculosis sanatoria.” Image source: public domain/GetArchive.

Hopes for eradication

In the early 1900s, incidence of TB declined as living and nutrition conditions improved, and as populations acquired natural immunity. Some of these improvements were prompted by critiques of industrialization, which contributed to crowded and inhumane living and working conditions (Barnes, 2020).And yet, the same romantic narratives that normalized TB in the affluent also reflected and fostered social indifference to—and scapegoating of—the poor living with TB (Bynum, 2012). The development of effective antibiotic treatment and a childhood vaccine accelerated population health gains in the 1940s and 1970s respectively. The relative influence of economic, political, and biomedical casual factors in driving the decline of TB continues to generate debate across epidemiology and social sciences. Public health gains during this century shaped hopes for global TB eradication.

Rising inequality

However, the 1990s marked a time of increased recognition of resurgent TB across all nations. As with the recent COVID-19 surge in India, a social model of health is needed to account for resurgence of TB. 20th century rates were simultaneously influenced by global policy failure to address health needs of those in poverty, cultural and political events, and new pathogen variants. The rise of HIV and AIDS produced a distinct yet overlapping pandemic, as the immunocompromised are especially vulnerable to TB co-infection. Multidrug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) had been developing alongside use of antibiotics. Medical anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer has been widely critical of global economic policy, which influenced bifurcated standards of care in affluent Western nations and the global south and to the rise of MDR-TB. The moral valence of communities worth investing in is also intertwined with histories of colonialism and ongoing racial and class dynamics that we have seen recapitulated during COVID-19 within the U.S. and globally.

Resistance and its social meaning

Antimicrobial resistance raises a distinct set of ethical issues, from obligations of antimicrobial stewardship to imperatives for drug and diagnostic tool development. The potential for development of COVID-19 vaccine resistance is an ongoing concern. Some fear that SARS-CoV-2 variants have mutations that render them uninhibited by (resistant to) neutralizing antibodies, thereby creating the possibility of “escaping” the immune system response seen in the already infected and/or vaccinated. The development of immune escape is a crucial factor in determining whether COVID-19 becomes endemic. The social implications of pathogen genomics are multifaceted:

  1. First, identification of new variants is now viewed by media organizations as newsworthy, influencing public perception of how outbreaks occur. The history of TB demonstrates that public interest could wane if media organizations in affluent nations lose interest in their novelty.
  2. Second, genomic surveillance illustrates one of the most promising areas of precision public health, requiring ethical guidance for establishing trust, transparency, and community welfare. However, the history of TB demonstrates the continuing global disparities in global health surveillance laboratory capacity.
  3. Third, Emily Martin’s ethnographic work on American understandings of immunity demonstrates the interplay between depictions of the body and pathogens, expert and lay experiences of disease, and social ideals (Martin, 1994). COVID-19 has undoubtedly altered human views of their relationship to microbes and will continue to do so in unanticipated ways.

Economics & TB

Currently, almost one quarter of the world’s population lives infected with tuberculosis. Many have a latent TB infection, which is not contagious. However, if untreated, latent TB can develop into active TB. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 million people fell ill and 1.4 million people died from TB in 2019. India leads the world in TB cases, an often-noted harbinger of its potential role in COVID-19 global health outcomes. The social determinants of health continue to need greater policy attention: 49% of people with TB continue to face catastrophic costs, defined as greater than 20% of annual household income. Drug resistance exacerbates these economic barriers: around 80% of people with MDR-TB face catastrophic costs. The economics of COVID-19 echo these relationships. As I write, members of the World Trade Organization are negotiating details of waiving COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property rights.

Endemics and social justice

The newly renamed MSU Center for Bioethics and Social Justice is an apt reflection of the shifting role of bioethics, including its attention to matters of population health. Emeritus faculty member Judith Andre notably argued bioethics is best understood as a multidisciplinary practice (Andre 2002). Bioethics practices must change in response to persistent and rising health inequities, including in infectious disease. TB outbreaks have affected community health for millennia, impacting residents of ancient Egypt and Greece. It is Ancient Greek, too, that provides the etymological differentiation between pandemic and endemic infections: pan, meaning “all,” en meaning “in,” and demos meaning “people.” We can sustain hope that COVID-19 will fade into the background, becoming another one of many common childhood coronavirus illnesses that does not confer serious symptoms. However, as this brief glimpse of the ethics and history of TB illustrates, COVID-19 merits distinct ethical analysis to avoid complacency.

Join the conversation

Global eradication of COVID-19 through universal vaccination requires a collective effort on a scale rarely achieved in human history. How do you think bioethics can generate new collaborations to sustain the global response to COVID-19? What values are relevant to you if COVID-19 becomes in the people as well as affecting all of us in this global emergency?

Photo of Karen M. Meagher

Karen M. Meagher, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Ethics Research at Mayo Clinic. Her main research interest is in ethics and social implications of human and pathogen genomics. She also holds the position of associate director of public engagement in which she leads a community engagement network for the Mayo Clinic Biobank in the Center for Individualized Medicine.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, May 27, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.
Continue reading “Pandemic and Endemic COVID-19 Ethics: Lessons from the history of tuberculosis”

Listen: Insight into the Telehealth Landscape

No Easy Answers in Bioethics Episode 24

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In this episode, Senior Academic Specialist Libby Bogdan-Lovis is joined by Dr. Sarah Pletcher, Vice President and Executive Medical Director of Virtual Care at Houston Methodist. Dr. Pletcher shares her telehealth expertise in a conversation that explores the benefits of telehealth for patients and providers, the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on telehealth adoption, reimbursement models, the future of telehealth, and more.

Ways to Listen

This episode was produced and edited by Liz McDaniel in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice. Music: “While We Walk (2004)” by Antony Raijekov via Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. Full episode transcript available.

About: No Easy Answers in Bioethics is a podcast series from the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Center faculty and their collaborators discuss their ongoing work and research across many areas of bioethics. Episodes are hosted by H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

Listen: Supporting Michigan’s Agricultural Community

No Easy Answers in Bioethics Episode 23

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This episode focuses on work being done in Michigan to support the well-being of farmers, agribusiness professionals, and the broader statewide agricultural community. Dr. Karen Kelly-Blake, assistant director and associate professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences, is joined by Community Behavioral Health Extension Educator Eric Karbowski, and Dr. Melissa Millerick-May, who holds appointments in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Environmental Health & Safety, and Michigan State University Extension. Mr. Karbowski shares MSU Extension resources available to farmers experiencing stress, including webinars, teletherapy, and other programs that help to reduce stigma still associated with behavioral health. Dr. Millerick-May discusses her ongoing work on farm safety, including tools developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both guests also discuss what led them to the work they are currently doing at MSU.

Ways to Listen

This episode was produced and edited by Liz McDaniel in the Center for Ethics. Music: “While We Walk (2004)” by Antony Raijekov via Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. Full episode transcript available.

About: No Easy Answers in Bioethics is a podcast series from the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Center faculty and their collaborators discuss their ongoing work and research across many areas of bioethics. Episodes are hosted by H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

Lessons on eating in a pandemic

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Megan A. Dean, PhD

Though COVID-19 is not a food-borne illness, the coronavirus outbreak has drastically changed the way many of us eat. According to one survey from mid-2020, 85% of people in the U.S. “have altered their food habits as a result of the pandemic.”

Image description: Restaurant operating during the COVID 19 pandemic has a sign posted: “Please wait outside until your name is called, or if you received a text message. Thank you!” Image source: thom masat/Unsplash.

While the bare supermarket shelves of early March have been replenished (except for the bucatini shelf, apparently), many are still struggling to get adequate food. An estimated 54 million people in the U.S. now face food insecurity, “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.” This is an increase of over 17 million since the start of the pandemic.

Another change is where people eat and with whom. Restrictions on indoor dining and shifts to online work and school mean that many are cooking and eating at home more often than before. Stay-at-home orders, gathering restrictions, and the closure of dining rooms in workplaces and institutions also mean that many are limiting their dining companions to those within their own households. For some, this means eating alone. For example, in summer 2020, 87% of nursing home residents ate most of their meals in their rooms alone, up from 32% prior to the pandemic.

Emotional or stress eating is also on the rise. It may come as no surprise to those of us who have endured 2020 and the first few weeks of 2021 that many are using food as “a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness.” These are just a few of the ways the pandemic has impacted eating in the U.S., but each offers lessons about some of the ethical challenges we face regarding food and eating.

Who stays hungry?

In the U.S., many of those who face food insecurity are children: 30 million children regularly rely on schools for free or reduced-price meals. But due to pandemic-related school closures, only 15% of eligible kids are now receiving these meals. As Cory Turner notes, many school districts have shifted to a meal pickup plan, but lack of transportation and time off from work mean that some caregivers cannot retrieve meals during scheduled pickup times. While some school districts have made creative efforts to distribute meals in other ways, many children go without.

These logistical challenges echo ongoing issues with the distribution of other goods and services essential to good health. Mitchell Katz argues that the U.S. health care system assumes that patients are middle-class; accessing medical care often requires reliable transportation, time off during working hours, or paid sick leave, which many working-class people simply do not have.

Image description: People wearing gloves and face coverings work to package food into plastic bags for distribution. Image source: Joel Muniz/Unsplash.

Like health care, food assistance is only helpful if it is accessible to those who need it. Emergency food benefits programs like the Pandemic EBT give eligible children’s caregivers much more flexibility, enabling them to purchase groceries on their own schedule. However, only six states and Puerto Rico have renewed this program for the 2020-2021 school year.

The value of eating

Asked to look ahead to 2021, many people said that when it comes to food, they were most excited to once again share meals with family and friends.

This desire for shared dining highlights the fact that eating is a rich source of value that extends far beyond nutrition, pleasure, or ostensible effects on body weight, whatever those New Year’s diet ads try to tell us.

There is social value in sharing a meal with coworkers, friends, or neighbors; cultural value in holiday meals, wedding feasts, funeral receptions, graduation toasts; aesthetic value in enjoying food and drink in the ambiance of a restaurant, café, or bar. Eating with others can also have moral value; it provides opportunities to show respect for others, build moral character, and establish moral community.

Some of this value can be found in eating at home. But for many, foregoing meals with friends, dates, colleagues, and loved ones has impoverished day-to-day life. This is not an argument against public health restrictions on dining; there are good, evidence-based reasons for many of these regulations (though more should be done to support restaurants and food service workers while indoor dining remains high risk). But acknowledging these losses enables us to mitigate them where possible, and where not, at least recognize they are worth mourning.

Eating and self-control

A final lesson can be learned from emotional eating, which is often framed as a lapse in self-control, “giving in” to cravings for unhealthy but comforting foods. I have argued elsewhere against the idea that such “mindless” eating is necessarily bad. Here I’ll highlight one way that pandemic-related increases in emotional eating point to the limited role of self-control in determining how we eat.

Image description: A person is sitting down eating a bowl of popcorn with a remote in their other hand. Their face from their mouth up is out of frame. Image source: JESHOOTS.COM/Unsplash.

For many, the pandemic has meant the collapse of eating routines and schedules alongside significant changes in physical proximity to food. Instead of having access to food only in the work lunchroom or on scheduled breaks, some people now work all day next to their refrigerators. Parents who would normally spend the school day working, running errands, socializing, or exercising, may spend much of their day in the kitchen preparing food for their kids.

As Quill R. Kukla puts it, our routines, schedules, and social and material surroundings constitute scaffolding for our actions. They constrain and enable what we do. When we are able to exercise self-control or agency, it is often because we have supportive scaffolds in place. So it’s entirely unsurprising that we eat differently when our daily structures of living have changed so radically. Recognizing this can help us avoid unjustly shaming ourselves and others for our eating, and also help us strategize more effectively about how to change that eating, if we so desire. It is important to acknowledge that now—as always—our ability to construct and inhabit supportive scaffolding is limited by work and family obligations, resources, living situations, and the like. And as many of us have learned over the past year, sometimes much of that is out of our direct control.

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Megan A. Dean, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. She works in feminist bioethics, with a focus on the ethics of eating.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Tuesday, February 4, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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Continue reading “Lessons on eating in a pandemic”

The White House outbreak: How to criticize irresponsible leaders without getting stuck in the illness blame game

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Sean A. Valles, PhD

In a twist of fate, there was an outbreak of COVID-19 at a White House celebration of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court of the United States. This elicited a wide range of reactions to seeing a gathering of opponents of strict COVID-19 control measures being hurt by the very pandemic they have downplayed. While others have worried about the moral philosophy of taking pleasure in others’ suffering, or the hypocrisy of evading rules one publicly espouses, I have a different worry. A poll shortly after the White House outbreak found that a majority of respondents believed that Trump had acted “irresponsibly” in how he had handled his personal risk of infection from people he interacted with. While I do not worry about the president being blamed for his illness, I do worry about the wider cultural practices of 1) victim-blaming by attributing a person’s illness to their personal moral failure, and 2) insisting that health is a matter of individual choice. While the distinction might not seem important at first, I will argue there is an important difference between victim-blaming the ill and holding leaders accountable for setting bad examples with their conduct and other leadership failures. The first kind of blame is toxic in a society, and the second kind of blame is an important part of a well-functioning democracy.

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court
Image description: President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump pose for a photo with Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the President’s nominee for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, her husband Jesse and their children on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. Image source: Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks.

Blaming people for their ill health is a strategy with an awful track record. It doesn’t do any good for the people subjected to “you’re too fat” messages. It doesn’t do any good for survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence. When directed inward, we self-blame for failing to do enough de-stressing self-care, rather than directing our blame to more appropriate targets like the needlessly bad working conditions or economic insecurities that make us stressed in the first place. Repeated messages that “sickness is the result of individual moral failure” also reinforce stigma. Stigma is a nasty phenomenon, with a “corrosive impact on the health of populations” and is particularly bad in cases of infectious diseases like COVID-19 because it actively encourages people to hide their infection, which is obviously bad for them and for others who interact with them.

A second problem with blaming people for their ill health is that ethics of blaming individual behavior reflects a misunderstanding of how health behavior works in the first place. Seemingly individualistic choices like diet, condom use, smoking, alcohol consumption, etc. are not made independently. We choose such things in roughly the same way we “choose” our religions or the languages we speak at home. Yes, each of us can choose to practice an entirely different religion (or lack thereof), and each of us can learn and use a different language in the home. Some of us do. In all of these cases, though, the vast majority of us don’t venture too far from a combination of what we learned while growing up and the cues we get from the people we interact with. We eat the foods familiar, convenient, and affordable to us. We adopt the values and beliefs (including trust in aspects of the scientific endeavor) of our communities, etc. Individual choices exist, but they exist within larger social contexts that have powerful but subtle effects on our choices.

Each of our everyday behaviors related to COVID-19 exist in a complex ecosystem of influences. Mask wearing and other social distancing measures have become intensely politicized and tied to masculinity. Masks and other health behavior measures also create new inconveniences and financial expenses. Social pressures also vary vastly from one setting to the next—in one store there are prodding questions and judgmental stares for wearing a mask, at an adjacent store there are similar pressures on those who don’t wear a mask. How we move our bodies and (un)cover our faces within these intense social pressures is not simply an individual choice.

Take the case of one of the attendees of the party at the White House, University of Notre Dame President, the Rev. John I. Jenkins. He did not wear a mask at the indoor/outdoor party, shook hands with attendees, and otherwise did not follow the standards he had imposed on members of his own university. He knew better and did not do better. Many of us have likely also gone against our better judgment to fit the incautious social distancing norms of a setting. Whether it is the university president or the university student, this is indeed hypocritical, and irresponsible in a sense. But, such blame is aside from the point, and more importantly it contributes to the sort of harmful cultural practices mentioned earlier—especially victim-blaming and stigmatizing the ill. Pointing out hypocrisy and the assigning of blame for individual health behavior distracts from the far more damaging thing Jenkins and the other leaders at the White House party did. As cultural leaders, they undercut efforts to build new norms, like public mask-wearing, the habit of greeting people without needlessly touching hands, etc.

We ought to blame Trump, Jenkins, and many other leaders who attended that party. We ought to blame them for failing in their relationships to the people they lead. That is a devastating form of irresponsibility. And it is very important to separate that kind of blame and irresponsibility accusation from the destructive form of blame discussed above: blaming people for having irresponsible relationships with their bodies/health.

The “personal responsibility” blame game has been the go-to talking point of conservative governors as they use their power to obstruct or dismantle public health measures. “You shouldn’t have to order somebody to do what is just in your own best interest and that of your family, friends and neighbors,” according to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Scolding people about “personal responsibility” during a public health crisis is a strategy based on how one wishes the world worked and not how it is actually working. Along similar lines, abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work (“teenagers: be sexually responsible by just not having sex before marriage!”), and neither does “just say no to drugs” education. Jenkins was at least right to point out that his behavior was a failure of leadership. As many of my colleagues in population health science say, we need to build a “culture of health.” That will require leaders suited to the task, and we ought to blame them when they fail in that leadership. Just skip the personal health blaming.

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Sean A. Valles, PhD, is an Associate Professor with an appointment in the Michigan State University Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Philosophy (where he is also Associate Chair). His research spans a range of topics in the philosophy of population health, from the use of evidence in medical genetics to the roles played by race concepts in epidemiology. He is author of the 2018 book Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era. He is also co-editor (with Quill R. Kukla) of the Oxford University Press book series “Bioethics for Social Justice.”

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, November 5, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Valles: We Need Healthier Schools, and Student Activists Are Stepping Up; Recognizing Menstrual Supplies as Basic Health Necessities: The Bioethics of #FreePeriodsTrump’s Attempt to Reignite the Coal Industry Is Another Health Policy BlunderPolitics and the Other Lead Poisoning: The Public Health Ethics of Gun ViolenceClimate Change and Medical Risk

Continue reading “The White House outbreak: How to criticize irresponsible leaders without getting stuck in the illness blame game”

Does YouTube widen health literacy disparities?

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The 2020-2021 Bioethics Public Seminar Series (formerly the Bioethics Brownbag & Webinar Series) continues next month. You are invited to join us virtually – events will not take place in person. Our seminars are free to attend and open to all individuals.

Is Seeking Information on Social Media Harmful to Your Health?

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Anjana Susarla, PhD

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Zoom registration: bit.ly/bioethics-susarla

Studies of health literacy in the United States, such as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy conducted in 2003, estimated that only 12% of adults had proficient health literacy skills. This talk will examine how social media platforms such as YouTube widen such health literacy disparities by steering users toward questionable content. Extracting thousands of videos purporting to be about diabetes, I verified whether the information shown conforms to valid medical guidelines. Using methods from computer science called deep learning, I identify medical terms in these videos and then classify videos based on whether they encode a high or low degree of medical information. Using data from aggregate engagement with these videos, I discover that videos that are popular are less likely to contain validated medical information. A study on the most popular videos on COVID-19 likewise found that a quarter of videos did not contain medically valid information.

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Join us for Dr. Susarla’s online lecture on Wednesday, November 18, 2020 from noon until 1 pm ET.

Anjana Susarla is a Professor of Information Systems at the Eli Broad College of Business. Her work has appeared in several academic journals and peer-reviewed conferences such as Academy of Management Conference, Information Systems Research, International Conference in Information Systems, Journal of Management Information Systems, Management Science and MIS Quarterly. Her op-eds and research have been quoted and published in several media outlets such as the Associated Press, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune, The Conversation, Fast Company, Houston Chronicle, Huffington Post, Michigan Public Radio, Marketplace Morning Report, Nasdaq, National Public Radio, Newsweek, Nieman Lab, the Nikkei, Pew Research, Quartz, Salon, the Week, Wired and the World Economic Forum.

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