Covid-19, Economics and Bioethics

Bioethics, in its essence, is multi-disciplinary. It involves medicine, philosophy, theology, political science, and supernumerary other scholarly fields. And, of course and, perhaps, unfortunately, economics. Bioethics is blessed, and plagued, by its confluence of academic influences, and operates within their inevitable, intersecting, conflicting, uncomfortable gray areas. The Covid-19 pandemic speaks to the bioethical implications that go beyond who gets ventilators and when do we get a vaccine to even more elemental questions. Can we survive the economic paralysis that comes from a quarantine designed to arrest or slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States? Was it “worth it” to force a government shutdown of many industries in an effort to keep our population as safe as possible….and, perhaps, forestall further economic devastation…and, even if so, what is our endgame?

I write this as a veterinarian, a bioethicist, a small business owner, a father of three high schoolers suddenly thrust into “e-learning,” and the son and son-in-law of octogenarians. If those seem conflicting interests, then they are indeed representative of just what a mess this pandemic finds our society. We aren’t unique but, in so many ways American, have managed to find ourselves the world leaders in Covid-19 deaths, infections, tests and are the economic “canary-in-the coal-mine” for the industrial world.

The Atlantic, hardly a shill for the Trump administration or its apologists, has a sober assessment, two months into the general national “quarantine” zeitgeist that has been our reality in most of America. The complex effects of the coronavirus on our economics are described in this piece, one that also looks at what those economic effects have on other nations and, yes, the mental and physical health of our own citizens. It isn’t pretty. Macroeconomics is a bioethics issue.

Americans have now been forced to face, and decide between, our competing ethics of safety (a biggie in contemporary society), personal liberty (autonomy, in ethical lingo, another biggie) and self-sacrifice for a greater civic good (mostly read about in vintage World War II texts, but bringing on a new significance). And it seems we can’t begin to reconcile them, so we just retreat into support of one of the first two, claiming the third as its moral anchor. As we are seeing, this is no way to orchestrate a response to a pandemic that has left (as of this writing) over 80,000 Americans dead and an economy that currently can only be measured by the Great Depression levels of unemployed, but really should only begin to be assessed the way we do tornado damage…when the sun comes up and the clouds lift.

There are no numbers to encourage us. Yet, reports tell us that there are available hospital beds and ventilators, and that the navy ships brought in to our urban “hot spots” to offer more space were (thankfully) never needed. We succeeded in “flattening the curve,” that goal that was always our fundamental one when we paralyzed our economy and society many weeks ago. So what is the goal now? Is it avoiding a new wave that will create a curve that needs flattening again? Is it a quick or gradual reversal of the paralysis of the economy that lets us eat out, shop in malls, have gatherings with friends, play sports and see marching bands perform, and worship in community again? Governors have played a primary role here, perhaps an illustration of the wisdom of federalism to some, the limitations of the same when dealing with a pandemic across fifty free borders to others. It is inescapably political in an election year…do you want to see people die or go bankrupt? That is our apparent binary choice, and our political polarization has already entrenched the position of each side.

I reinforce to my clients who are making decisions for my patients, their pets, as well as to my own children, should they be listening, that every decision we make has consequences, and virtually none makes everyone a winner. The Atlantic article mentions the profound economic devastation that comes to our health if we enter an economic abyss. Some of that is already realized. That bioethical decisions are inextricably economic should be painfully obvious to all. It has always been the “elephant in the room,” sometimes at a micro- and others at a macro-level. We have viewed economics as, at best, a stern taskmaster who wants to ruin a good thing and, at worst, the archenemy of bioethics. In the West at least, we have been blessed by wealth to make high-level bioethical decisions. The challenge of who gets dialysis was answered by “everyone,” because we found a way to pay for it without creating economic devastation. When that wealth erodes, we are on a different playing field. Covid-19 shows us what happens when a bioethical decision runs headlong into economics. Again, it isn’t pretty.

Fundamentally, we need to decide what human dignity and human flourishing look like in a modern society. Justice for all, and with particular attention paid to those at the margins, always dictate this. The margins we face in Covid-19 are, of course, the elderly, the immune-compromised, the chronically ill. But they are also those who struggle in good times to make financial ends meet and who are suddenly out of work weeks after the highest level of employment in recent history. Some are facing mental health and addiction crises. Global poverty, and its accompanying hunger and death, will rise. Whether one out of five or one out of ten, whether in North America or sub-Saharan Africa, we have a group of people at the margins. The number will inevitably widen as the storm damage is fully assessed. To fail to account for them in our public health decisions is inept and insensitive. To ignore the power of a disease caused by a novel virus for which no nation in the world has yet achieved “herd immunity” is no better.

Be careful how strongly you support either position. Those who lead, ultimately, are successful when they disappoint those who follow them equally. This is not a Solomonic baby-splitting, but the hard work of public policy and personal behavior. We will give up (and already have given up, to a great extent) some things that are excruciatingly painful losses. Our Western obsession with safety, with the quest for immortality that cannot be realized, for choosing death on our own terms and in our own time, has come under attack. Now we can be safer, but lose our prosperity, or remain wealthy but sacrifice many more thousands of our own. We can’t have both. Our public health decisions must recognize that national and global economics are bioethical, human flourishing, epidemiological decisions that cannot be ignored. A cavalier approach to loss of human life is ghastly, and an economy that fails means a health care system that fails.

Causes of Death Coding in COVID-19 Pandemic

Reporting causes of death is an important function in our society, and involves a number of people in completing each death certificate:

  • Pronouncer of death – may be a physician
  • Certifier of death – usually a physician; assigns cause of death
  • Funeral director – completes the demographic information, next of kin, and burial information portions of the death certificate
  • Local registrar or health department – registers the death certificate, and has long term management responsibility of same

The Office of Vital Statistics performs statistical analysis and reports on the mortality data, which are used in many ways, including surveillance of diseases, tracking of national deaths in emergencies and pandemics, and to justify health spending. Any misinformation along the way will impact not only the individual death certificate, but also all the data that includes that death certificate.

Death certificates are legal records. The physician as certifier of death “determines and accurately records the sequence of medical conditions that resulted in death. When the physician signs the certificate, he or she has legally certified that, to the best of his or her knowledge, the individual died for the reasons listed under the cause of death.” (CDC online course on “Improving Cause of Death Reporting (Web Based),” WB2959)

The Cause of Death (COD) portion of the death certificate entails two main sections. Part Ia is where the immediate cause of death is listed, and subsections Ib, Ic, and Id detail the sequence of events, listed backwards in time, that culminated in the proximate cause of death. Any other diseases or conditions that may have contributed to the person’s demise are listed in Part II.   The COD is the important part of the death certificate as far as vital statistics are concerned. The use of “suspected,” “probable,” or “possible” has been previously discouraged in the listed COD on death certificates. In fact, the above-referenced course currently offered by the CDC does not include such possibilities.

But that has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization issued its International Guidelines for Certification and Classification (Coding) of COVID-19 as Cause of Death on 20 April 2020.  They declared, “A death due to COVID-19 is defined for surveillance purposes as a death resulting from a clinically compatible illness . . .” New ICD-10 codes have been developed. For cases in which the virus has been identified, the code is U07.1; and when it has not been identified, but COVID-19 is “probable” or “suspected,” the code is U07.2. (p. 8/14).

The CDC’s National Vital Statistics, likewise, published new “Guidance for Certifying Deaths Due to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)” in April.  They indicated that the Underlying Cause of Death (UCOD) “should be reported on the lowest line used in Part I” of the death certificate. Although the document encourages testing if possible, the completion of a death certificate does not require it:

In cases where a definite diagnosis of COVID–19 cannot be made, but it is suspected or likely (e.g., the circumstances are compelling within a   reasonable degree of certainty), it is acceptable to report COVID–19 on a  death certificate as “probable” or “presumed.”

The advice goes further, to say that if COVID-19 is involved, “it is likely the UCOD and thus, it should be reported on the lowest line used in Part I of the death certificate.”

What are the ramifications of such changes to death certificates?

  •  Possibly inflated COVID-19 death counts
  •  Perhaps (unfairly) increased federal aid to areas with inflated COVID-19 deaths
  •  Under-reporting of other causes of death, and resulting lack of attention to  appropriate health concerns
  •  Loss of veracity in the persons responsible for completing the death certificates       
  •  Loss of trust in a system that has been manipulated

None of these is desirable, and all will cost us in the end.