In the Aug. 26 town hall, President Peter Salovey made it clear that booster shots for low-risk members of the Yale community will be available as soon as they are recommended by the CDC. According to a recent email from Dr. Paul Genecin, this is anticipated in the coming months.
As members of the Yale community, I trust that we all place a high value on outstanding teaching, learning and research. And, as President Salovey put it so memorably in his Aug. 16 email, there is undeniably a “palpable energy and … catalytic potential we create when we study and work in person.”
However, I ask the Yale administration to consider the ethical implications of their planned course of action. Is ensuring an in-person semester more valuable than the lives of systematically disadvantaged people around the globe?
There are over 5 billion people over the age of 15 currently living on our planet, and most of them have been touched by the COVID-19 pandemic. 3.3 billion people are currently at least partially vaccinated, leaving almost 2 billion people in eligible age groups completely unprotected. The global poor are suffering from COVID-19, perhaps especially so because they tend to be less able to reliably access hospitals, ventilators, oxygen and antiviral drugs.
Vaccine distribution has been extremely unequal, with rich countries controlling access. As of Sept. 13, only 5.8 percent of Africans are fully or partially vaccinated; the majority of these vaccine doses are concentrated in a small number of countries. A lack of even partial vaccination is seen in much of the Middle East, south and southeast Asia and parts of Central and South America as well as a number of post-Soviet countries. Over 90 percent of the Yale community, by contrast, is fully vaccinated.
In the immediate future, preserving our academic environment and saving the lives of people around the globe is not a both-and situation. Vaccine production capacity is finite, and every dose of a COVID-19 vaccine administered by Yale could have gone to a population in desperate need. This raises ethical questions about our duties toward people in far-off places. Do we owe it to people in other countries to prioritize their access to vaccines right now over our own? I think we do.
Some moral philosophers argue that we have no greater duty to a person living in New Haven than we do to a person living in India. One argument for this position goes like this. We have certain moral obligations or duties towards other people because their lives have objective value, and where a person lives does not change the objective value of their life. Therefore, we have the same moral obligations to people living in far-off places as we do to people living in our own area.
Philosophers who subscribe to this kind of view might suggest that we should not have prioritized fully vaccinating the Yale community in the first place. After all, what does being a Yale student or staff or faculty member have to do with deserving protection from COVID-19?
Most people, however, have an intuition that we do have special duties to the communities that we are embedded in. At Yale, we live together, support one another in our personal and academic pursuits and look out for each other. When COVID-19 seemed to pull us apart, we did what we could to stay connected and rebuild, which included taking vaccines. Placing a special value on interpersonal relationships and helping the people right in front of you who are in need is not unreasonable. This supports the decision made by the Yale administration to prioritize fully vaccinating the Yale community. But upholding these values does not mean that any good, no matter how small, for the Yale community should be prioritized over any bad that happens in other communities. In this case, the good is an in-person academic environment and the bad is loss of human life.
One might argue that we have to do everything we can to eliminate breakthrough infections among healthy people at Yale because these infections can still threaten the health and lives of vulnerable people who have had boosters, such as people who are immunocompromised for whom vaccines are less effective. The lives of at-risk individuals in our community are not disposable, and I do not suggest that we put them at risk by exposing them to the breakthrough infections that seem to be inevitable.
However, we have ways to protect vulnerable members of our community without hoarding vaccines. Offering hybrid or fully online classes allows at-risk individuals to protect themselves — some may want this option even if many people receive boosters. Online classes are far from ideal, but what would it say about us if we treat classes as more important than the deaths of people who have no vaccination access because their countries are less economically developed and/or are marginalized on the global stage?
While most of us will feel comfortable that our community was protected from severe illness as soon as vaccines were available, we should not feel comfortable prioritizing our own convenience and preferences over the lives of people suffering in far-off places.