2020 is the year a Pandemic, with a capital “P,” afflicted the globe, drowned every economy, threatened death to millions, and generated billions of written words. Words of accusation, comfort, denial, dystopia, hope, and wishful thinking.

This post is not about the ethics of writing COVID-19. That will follow ad seriatim. This posting is about the ethics of writing about pandemics: a narrow visit to our pandemic past—the better to assess our chances of writing to quell today’s pandemonium. It’s not about today’s war to win against the odds or to survive against a future that boggles the notion of tomorrow. And it’s not about every pandemic—it’s only about influenza pandemics: the ones generated from novel influenza A & B viruses.

Between WWI and 9/11, America weathered its way through scores of outbreaks, epidemics, and full-blown pandemics.[1]  In 2005, the United States Department of Health and Human Services developed a Pandemic Influenza Plan “to coordinate and improve efforts to prevent, control, and respond to A(H5N1) viruses as well as other novel influenza A viruses with pandemic potential.”[2]

Influenza A & B viruses change in milliseconds. They infect with the ease of waves sliding on sand at high tide. And they spread from one hapless body to another like meteor showers. But those medical characteristics are not ethical tests. What ethical norms from our long pandemic history are available today? Can we learn from them what we need to stress in ethical terms today?

In short, how do writers write ethically about pandemics that are medical emergencies?

Writers should apply the same ethical standard to writing about a pandemic that clinicians do. It’s called bioethics. Frontline medical emergency practitioners use case-based reasoning and give great weight to patients’ autonomy, personal values, professional oaths and codes. Bioethics are concerned with the ethical questions that arise in the relationships among life sciences, biotechnology, medicine and medical ethics, politics, law, theology and philosophy.[3] Ethicality in writing about pandemics should be subject to basic bioethical research. You should explicitly answer a set question. Your assessment should be supported by evidence from other writers, and show a suitable command of written English.[4]

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/pandemic-timeline-1930-and-beyond.htm

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/national-strategy/index.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioethics

[4] https://guides.lib.monash.edu/bioethics/writing-preparation