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A doctor in Guwahati, India
A doctor in Guwahati, India
Carl-Johan Karlsson

One effect of the global pandemic has been to push perennial ethical dilemmas from the comfortable confines of university campuses and philosopher parlor games into the cold reality of everyday life. Facing a global shortage of respirators and ICU beds, medical workers are forced to make hard (impossible) choices on the fly about which patients are given priority and how to allocate scarce resources among their staff. In deciding when and how to loosen lockdown measures, national and local politicians are essentially weighing the risk of life A lost today to cause X against the risk of cause Y killing B tomorrow.

The question of how to value human life is of course not a province of only frontline health workers or political representatives. We are all — for the first time in a long time — compelled to ponder what is and should be the moral foundation of our societies.

Such questions can touch every part of our lives, and can span across time and space. Ethics were at the core of a piece this week by one of my colleagues about her grandmother and another one last week about the use of a smartphone application to track the pandemic.

Indeed, the fact that COVID-19 has hit in 2020, means that the ethical stakes in the coming months and years will largely play out around information technology and artificial intelligence. Javier Saade, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist recently noted how the pandemic has infused even more value into massive digitally-driven companies, from Peleton to Amazon to Zoom.

"Eliminating human agency has been at the core of innovation during the last four decades. Less human intervention in a call center, a hedge fund trading desk, a factory, a checkout line or a motor vehicle seems fine — but in cases of greater importance, humans should remain more active or we will, at best, make ourselves irrelevant."

Perhaps, out of all the ways in which this crisis is different from that of 2008, is the long overdue return of such existential questions to the public consciousness. It has been about pure economics and ideology for far too long. However terrible the reasons, being forced to consider what constitutes an ethical society is just what the (proverbial) doctor ordered. Indeed, if we can agree that impossible choices must be avoided at all costs, we have a starting point.


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Society

How India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

A woman walking through dense fog in New Delhi

*Saumya Kalia

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

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