The COVID-19 wicked problem in public health ethics: conflicting evidence, or incommensurable values?

Federica Angeli*, Silvia Camporesi, Giorgia Dal Fabbro

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


While the world was facing a rapidly progressing COVID-19 second wave, a policy paradox emerged. On the one side, much more was known by Autumn 2020 about the mechanisms underpinning the spread and lethality of Sars-CoV-2. On the other side, how such knowledge should be translated by policymakers into containment measures appeared to be much more controversial and debated than during the first wave in Spring. Value-laden, conflicting views in the scientific community emerged about both problem definition and subsequent solutions surrounding the epidemiological emergency, which underlined that the COVID-19 global crisis had evolved towards a full-fledged policy “wicked problem”. With the aim to make sense of the seemingly paradoxical scientific disagreement around COVID-19 public health policies, we offer an ethical analysis of the scientific views encapsulated in the Great Barrington Declaration and of the John Snow Memorandum, two scientific petitions that appeared in October 2020. We show that how evidence is interpreted and translated into polar opposite advice with respect to COVID-19 containment policies depends on a different ethical compass that leads to different prioritization decisions of ethical values and societal goals. We then highlight the need for a situated approach to public health policy, which recognizes that policies are necessarily value-laden, and need to be sensitive to context-specific and historic socio-cultural and socio-economic nuances.

Original languageEnglish
Article number161
Number of pages8
JournalHumanities and Social Sciences Communications
Issue number1
Early online date30 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021

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© The Author(s) 2021

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