Disability, Ethics, and Health Care in the COVID-19 Pandemic

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This article considers key ethical, legal, and medical dilemmas arising for people with disabilities in the COVID-19 pandemic. We highlight the limited application of existing frameworks of emergency planning with and for people with disabilities in the COVID-19 pandemic, explore key concerns and issues affecting the health care of people with disabilities (i.e., access to information and clinician–patient communication, nondiscrimination and reasonable accommodations, and rationing of medical goods), and indicate possible solutions. Finally, we suggest clinical and public health policy measures to ensure that people with disabilities are included in the planning of future pandemic-related efforts.

The devastation evoked by the COVID-19 pandemic raises challenging dilemmas in bioethics. It also speaks to social justice issues that have plagued historically marginalized communities in the United States.

Responses to the pandemic must be bound by legal standards, principles of distributive justice, and societal norms of protecting vulnerable populations—core commitments of public health—to ensure that inequities are not exacerbated, and should provide a pathway for improvements to ensure equitable access and treatment in the future.

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Maya Sabatello, LLB, PhD, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, PhD, Katherine E. McDonald, PhD, and Paul S. Appelbaum, MDMaya Sabatello and Paul S. Appelbaum are with the Center for Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, NY. Teresa Blankmeyer Burke is with the Department of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Sociology, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC. Katherine E. McDonald is with the Department of Public Health, Falk College, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. “Disability, Ethics, and Health Care in the COVID-19 Pandemic”, American Journal of Public Health 110, no. 10 (October 1, 2020): pp. 1523-1527.


PMID: 32816541