The COVID-19 Wicked Problem in Public Health Ethics: Conflicting Evidence, or Incommensurable Values?

Silvia Camporesi, Federica Angeli*, Giorgia Dal Fabbro

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


While the world is facing a rapidly progressing COVID-19 second wave, a policy paradox emerges. On the one side, much more is now known 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 is much more controversial and debated now than during the first wave. Value-laden, conflicting views in the scientific community have emerged about both problem definition and subsequent solutions surrounding the epidemiological emergency, which underlines that the COVID-19 global crisis has 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. 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
JournalHumanities and Social Sciences Communications
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 27 May 2021


  • covid
  • pandemic
  • public health
  • public health ethics
  • public policy
  • Wicked problems


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