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War Ethics and COVID-19

War Ethics and COVID-19


  • Human beings have been fighting each other since prehistoric times, and people have been discussing the rights and wrongs of it for almost as long.
  • The Ethics of War starts by assuming that war is a bad thing, and should be avoided if possible, but it recognises that there can be situations when war may be the lesser evil of several bad choices.
  • War is a bad thing because it involves deliberately killing or injuring people, and this is a fundamental wrong – an abuse of the victims’ human rights.

 War Ethics

  • The purpose of war ethics is to help decide what is right or wrong, both for individuals and countries, and to contribute to debates on public policy, and ultimately to government and individual action.
  • War ethics also leads to the creation of formal codes of war (e.g. the Hague and Geneva conventions), the drafting and implementation of rules of engagement for soldiers, and in the punishment of soldiers and others for war crimes.


  • The discussion of the ethics of war goes back to the Greeks and Romans, although neither civilisation behaved particularly well in war.
  • In the Christian tradition war ethics were developed by St Augustine, and later by St Thomas Aquinas and others.
  • Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a Dutch philosopher and author of De Jure Belli Ac Pacis (The Rights of War and Peace), wrote down the conditions for a just war that are accepted today.

Rules And Conventions

At various times in history, rules have been laid down to govern the conduct of war – more specifically to say what behaviour is forbidden. The list below is only a selection.

  • 1439: In 1439, Charles VII of Orleans laid down a law that said that officers would be held responsible for ‘the abuses, ills and offences’ committed by the men they commanded. If an officer didn’t take action promptly, or allowed an offender to escape punishment, then the officer would be punished as if they were the original offender.
  • 1815: The Congress of Vienna ruled in the case of Napoleon that it was a crime to go to war in breach of a treaty.
  • 1863: The Lieber Code was an early American code of conduct for armies, implemented by President Lincoln during the Civil War.
  • 1864: The first Geneva Convention protects the sick and wounded by giving protection to medical facilities and their staff and any civilians helping the wounded. The convention also recognised the Red Cross as a neutral medical group. 10 countries signed the Convention at first, (the UK signed in 1865, and the USA in 1882).
  • 1865: Captain Henry Wirz, commander of a Confederate prison camp was tried and executed for ‘conspiracy to destroy prisoners’ lives in violation of the laws and customs of war’ and ‘murder in violation of the laws and customs of war’.                  War Ethics and COVID-19
  • This trial confirmed the principles of the Lieber Code and established the consequences of giving illegal orders.
  • 1874: The Brussels Protocol laid down that war should not ‘inflict unnecessary suffering’ upon an enemy.
  • 1880: The ‘Manual on the Laws of War on Land’ is drafted in England.
  • 1899 – 1907: The Hague Conferences create ‘The Convention on Laws and Customs of War’ – based on the manual referred to above.
  • 1906: Second Geneva Convention gives protection to wounded combatants at sea, and to victims of shipwreck.
  • 1919: The ‘Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on the Enforcement of Penalties’ lays down a clear doctrine of criminal responsiblity for war crimes. all persons belonging to enemy countries, however high their position may have been, without distinction of rank, including Chiefs of Staff, who have been guilty of offenses against the laws and customs of war or the laws of humanity, are liable to criminal prosecution. Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on the Enforcement of Penalties, 1919
  • 1925: Geneva Gas Protocol bans the use of poison gas and biological warfare.
  • 1929
  • Third Geneva Convention lays down rules to protect prisoners of war.
  • 1946: The Nuremberg tribunal tries Nazi war criminals on the basis that the Hague Convention of 1907 is customary international law.
  • 1948: The United Nations General Assembly adopts the ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’.                                    War Ethics and COVID-19
  • 1949: Fourth Geneva Convention brings together the elements of the first three Geneva Conventions and adds rules to protect civilians during war.
  • 1993: Establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, with jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and violations of the laws or customs of war committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991.
  • 1997: Two protocols to the Geneva Convention give protection to guerrillas in civil wars or wars of national liberation.
  • 1998: An international conference adopts the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, opening the way to the establishment of an International Criminal Court.

COVID-19 And War Ethics

Major wars and major epidemics are serious threats, but they differ from each other.

  • First, in the Covid-19 crisis, the overarching objective is much more ambiguous than it is in a major war. The Covid-19 crisis comes from nature.
  • Second, even though certain areas may see greater disruptions, the overall outcome of a major war is the same for the entire country. But the outcomes in the Covid-19 crisis may be different across states and cities, depending on the background conditions and how each city and state responds. Further, given the differences in economies, health systems and administrative systems, suitable responses to Covid-19 may vary across cities and states.                            War Ethics and COVID-19
  • Third, the economics of major wars is different from the economics of dealing with Covid-19. Major wars require shutting down a large part of normal economic activity to divert people, materials, productive capacities and finances towards waging the war. But the Covid-19 crisis requires finding ways to continue many normal economic activities, while reducing the risk of transmission. Although the resource requirement of the direct public health response, which includes tracing, testing, isolating, and treatment, is much lower than that for a major war, if we don’t find ways to keep large parts of the economy working, the welfare costs will be quite high. And even if we breach the fiscal rules, we have limited fiscal capacity to mitigate these costs.
  • Fourth, in a war, the government must lead and command, and others involved in the war effort mostly take directions. To be sure, the Covid-19 crisis has a key role for the government, but we should not assume that only the government has the answers in this crisis. Choices by individuals and families, collective action by communities, innovations by firms, and coercion by the government are all important.


  • Global leaders have increasingly used war rhetoric to describe the COVID-19 pandemic and are responding by prioritizing the rationing of care and essential resources.
  • Unethical behaviors such as profiteering and piracy have characterized prior wartime conduct, with negative repercussions afterwards. Some fertility clinics are overlooking ASRM COVID0-19 recommendations, making it crucial to explore the bioethics perspectives on this decision.
  • A shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) is one of the defining characteristics of the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis many compare to a war.
  • However, an ethical danger exists in the overly simplistic language comparing our fight against COVID-19 to a war, and equating doctors and nurses with soldiers.
  • This is a time for medical interventions, for strict hygiene, for research, and not least for tough, but necessary political decisions and regulations.              War Ethics and COVID-19
  • But it is also, just as in war, a time when we sorely need love, hope, and care. It is a time when we should tap into the philosophical and spiritual resources of our traditions, and to show, with good will, togetherness, faith, hope, charity, and even humor and smiles that this crisis – and it is a crisis – will not get the better of us.