This PhD position is part of the interdisciplinary UU PhD programme of the Faculty of Humanities
, funded by the administrative agreement (‘bestuursakkoord’) between the Ministry of OCW and the universities. We are seeking to hire a highly motivated, driven, and talented PhD candidate to carry out this PhD project on public policy and priority for vulnerable groups in the context of pandemic preparedness. The PhD project will be located in the Ethics Institute at the Research Institute for Philosophy and Religious Studies
, Utrecht University.
This project investigates the interplay between uncertainty and vulnerability in epidemic preparedness policies, more specifically: How can policy decisions concerning priority setting in the protection of vulnerable groups be ethically justified in the face of profound uncertainty? Many response measures during the COVID-19 pandemic were geared towards protecting specific vulnerable groups such as the elderly. But these measures also increased burdens or risks for other groups. For example, the closing of schools to inhibit transmission was expected to primarily decrease risks of severe disease for the elderly, with potential costs for the mental health and
development of children. Digital tools played an essential role in allowing for and mitigating the harm of social distancing measures (contact tracing apps, online work and schooling, online support and dissemination of information) but also exacerbated existing inequalities between those that are
more likely to have easy access to and command of the requisite tools, and those who might face barriers to acquiring and using digital technologies and information.
Hence, policies must deal with people who are vulnerable for different reasons. In formulating justified public policy for epidemic preparedness and response, we must therefore first determine whether, and to what extent, vulnerable groups should be prioritised. But even if we do determine
that protecting the vulnerable is an important policy goal, we are left with the difficult task of adjudicating between the claims of different vulnerable groups. Many factors might come into assessing and weighing potentially competing claims from different vulnerable groups: it might make a morally salient difference, for example, whether a certain group is made vulnerable due to the specific circumstances of the crisis, or whether pre-existing vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the crisis.
A difference in the strength of claims to prioritisation could arise between those who are liable to be harmed by an insufficiently mitigated crisis, and those who may suffer disproportionate harm as a result of the policies put in place to mitigate the effects of the crisis. A further difficulty is presented by the fact that some measures may both protect and exacerbate vulnerabilities of the same group – the elderly might be better protected from pathogen spread by moving many activities online, while simultaneously facing barriers to participation due to a higher likelihood of lower digital literacy.
The fact that these decisions are necessarily made under significant uncertainty – about both the characteristics of the public health threat and the impact of the measures used to contain it – adds another layer of difficulty. We may have trouble identifying vulnerable groups, or determining how severe the threat to a group is. The normal frameworks and tools that we use to weigh and balance claims might not function properly when certain information is lacking.
This project will involve close collaboration with epidemiologists, policy advisors, policymakers, and other interdisciplinary and societal partners to determine which uncertainties are regarded as particularly troubling for both establishing vulnerability and formulating public policy. The candidate will be encouraged to rethink, adapt, and introduce new elements to this project depending on their research interests.