In a pandemic, do doctors still have a duty to treat?

Judging from history, doctors and nurses might well rebel during this coronavirus pandemic if a shortage of face masks and other protective equipment persists. This would of course be a disaster. People are in urgent need of care. Without uniform adherence to professional obligations, the health care system — and society itself — could fall apart.

I don’t think it will happen. I believe health care workers will continue to make the sacrifices necessary to treat patients. However, it would be a mistake for people to assume that our professional obligations are unconditional. An unconditional obligation would absolve society of its own responsibilities. And there are many.

For instance, health care workers should not be forced to incur additional risk because people don’t want to practice social distancing (vacationers flocking to Florida beaches during spring break come to mind). We shouldn’t have to pay for shortsighted government policies that have already eviscerated our public health infrastructure and may soon lead to the premature relaxation of social distancing rules. And of course, we need proper masks.