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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Top Issues Related to Government Ethics During This Time of Pandemic

United States Capitol

United States Capitol

Mariana Perera

Mariana Perera ’20 is a Fullbright Scholar and Hackworth Fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

The current situation of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, and specifically in the U.S., has brought new concerns surrounding government ethics to the table, as citizens are posed with dilemmas related to the government’s role in their daily lives. Although the pandemic is impacting every part of society, this post focuses on dilemmas that are especially prominent in the minds of members of Generation Z as they embark on a transitional period in their lives. The impacts of this pandemic are expected to have lasting marks on their lives, especially as many enter the workforce and adulthood.

Here are some of the top issues related to government ethics that have arisen during the pandemic and are worth considering, especially for members of Generation Z. 

1. Individual Freedom vs. Collective Action

The United States was founded on values of individual freedoms and rights granted by and protected from the government in order to ensure democratic values. The pandemic, however, has shifted its focus towards collective action solutions. This is creating a sense of fear among citizens who feel that the government is overstepping its power by limiting people’s ability to go into public spaces and attend large gatherings. People around the country are ignoring orders by state officials claiming an infringement on freedoms like the ability to peacefully assemble at the beach. However, they refrain from stating how their personal actions could have repercussions for the health of others and lead to shelter-in-place extensions. 

Although some people may not believe in or care about the impacts of Covid-19, their disregard for health puts others at risk, not just themselves. This brings the question of the role that the government could have in enforcing certain restrictions. How should they, if at all, use their power to promote adequate responses to the virus while still ensuring citizens’ individual rights?

For members of Generation Z, one of the least at-risk groups for Covid-19, the need for collective action has been proven to be absolutely necessary in the fight against the spreading of the virus. However, this means that people must alter their daily lives and refrain from doing things like seeing friends or attending events. The shift towards collective action may be a hard adjustment for Americans that value their individual rights, yet it paves the way toward a sense of normality in the near future.

2. Voting

2020 is an important year in terms of politics as Donald Trump’s term as president is nearing the end. Similarly, there are hundreds of races up and down the ballot that are relying on voter participation during both the primaries and the November election. Given current circumstances, those who would typically go out and vote may be limited or unable to do so for various reasons, which raises the question of whether elections should be postponed until further notice or continue as scheduled. Is it ethical to ask people to risk their health to vote or simply abstain from voting?

Some states have decided to carry out their elections, like Wisconsin, which recently held its primary, despite the Democrats’ attempt to postpone it. However, controversy struck as people stood in crowded lines for hours despite nationwide orders to practice social distancing and stay home. Those who were aware and had the resources to do so, could request an absentee ballot online to mail in their votes. Many, however, were left disenfranchised, including healthcare and essential workers. This decision posed several ethical dilemmas as people’s health was put at risk and many were excluded from participating in the democratic process.

The situation in Wisconsin, however, is paving the way towards a change in voting as people aim to find a way to be civically active in times of pandemic and social distancing. It is promoting discussion on upcoming elections in other states. Sixteen states have either postponed their election date or moved toward a vote-by-mail method, hoping these changes facilitate voting for their constituents and provide them time to adjust.

For many members of Gen Z, this election is their first time as eligible voters. Their vote matters as those elected will likely be in charge of dealing with the repercussions of the pandemic. However, young voters are still seen as the most apathetic age group. The question of whether abstaining from voting is unethical also arises as people seek solutions for the pandemic. By facilitating voting and providing access to information, the government can ensure higher potential levels of participation in upcoming elections.

3. The Economy and Unemployment

The economy has come to a complete halt since the outbreak. As more businesses close their doors and people lose their jobs, unemployment rates have skyrocketed nationwide and continue to rise. This is leading to the concern that the economy won’t be able to meet everyone’s needs. Although Congress has passed legislation to help individuals and small businesses, state governments may need to get involved. One of the biggest concerns to this level of government support and “bailout” has been echoed by those who believe in a lower level of government involvement. Who should be involved and prioritized in their legislation? This question comes after Governor Gavin Newsom of California received backlash for announcing statewide funds for undocumented immigrants. To what extent should the government commit tax-payer funds to help Americans, and logistically what can be done? How can government involvement be approached ethically? 

For members of Gen Z, the potential inability of the economy to fully recover poses a threat to their current or near-future role in the workforce. Many of the older members of this generation are entering the workforce, either out of college or high school, with entry-level jobs on their radar. If positions of higher experience and long-term roles are kept, those in entry-level positions and internships may see their opportunities and jobs disappear. Similarly, members of Gen Z are unlikely to receive money from the stimulus bill passed by Congress. This bill aims to provide relief to small businesses, states, and individuals. However, there are certain requirements for one to receive the $1,200 check, with Generation Z citizens largely not qualifying due to their likely status as dependents.

As states attempt to return to normal, the government will have to decide what role, if any, it will take to help boost the economy. They’ll need to decide at what point the economy can safely re-open, with fear that a wrong decision will lead to higher deaths and a longer recovery period. Their decisions should be based on ethical perspectives that center around citizens and their wellbeing.

4. Media and Disinformation

Fake news and misinformation are common instances in our lives as social media plays a large role in politics and our news consumption. Bad actors can easily spread lies on any subject with little repercussion, and therefore consumers must take responsibility for verifying sources into their own hands. Who should be policing this information? What happens when people who are part of the government contribute to the fake news, as most social platforms allow them to do?

During this time of pandemic, the cases of misinformation have increased and in some cases, been pushed out by influential groups like TV networks and government officials. Individuals that do not believe in the value of scientific data are some of the main contributors to the spread of misinformation, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who shared his belief that the virus does not pose any risk at all for people under 25, although scientific facts say otherwise. This behavior by those in power is unethical, as it puts the lives of the audience at risk when they take the information at face value. Fake symptoms, number of cases/deaths, and unfounded solutions to the virus are all examples of misinformation that have spread throughout the media in the last few months. 

Given most members of Gen Z are highly connected through social media and receive their news through these channels; it’s crucial that networks address the spread of misinformation and closely monitor its sources. The more people exposed to this information, especially from those with authority and to whom we hold a higher standard, the greater the impact that the pandemic will have.

5. New Basic Rights?

As daily lives are changing, we are relying more on things like technology and the internet to complete tasks that might otherwise have been done in person. As children switch into online classes and people work from home, the topic of access and what a government should ensure as basic rights for people becomes more relevant. This is especially an issue as some Americans already lacked access to the internet before the outbreak and now may be unable to pay their bills, with fear of losing such access. Should the government aim to ensure all children have internet access and the basic tools to learn online the same way they provide books and meals? 

Our ideas of what human rights are or what classifies as a necessity are shifting and therefore we ask whether it is now the government’s job to provide those in the way they help provide others. What happens when children cannot take classes during shelter-in-place due to lack of access to technology? 

The internet is one of the biggest sources that people are relying on now and seeing as a necessity, especially members of Generation Z, who have grown up alongside technology and require it for classes and jobs, yet until the pandemic, it was seen as a privilege rather than a right. If this definition and the need for the internet has changed, what does it mean for privacy and security rights? 

The list of concerns with regards to government ethics that has arisen from this pandemic is long. However, these are five issues that directly impact the lives of Generation Z in America. Although all these issues have different focuses and affect Americans differently, their similarities stand in the idea that the role of government is changing as the virus spreads. 


May 1, 2020