Unlike soldiers, who enlist with the very specific obligation to lay down their lives when so ordered, medical professionals are under a different set of ethical obligations. They are required to provide emergency care to any patient in a hospital but are not required to work in hospitals that cannot adequately mitigate risks to their own lives. How much risk are they obliged to take on? This question is currently front and center in the COVID-19 response…

The health care professionals currently fighting COVID-19 are, in many cases, doing so outside the scope of their normal duties. Doctors and nurses have traveled to hot spots as volunteer replacements, while others who are not emergency or ICU doctors are working in those settings. These health care professionals are running toward a fight that has all the intensity of a war. And they’re doing so with all the attendant heroism. In the years ahead, as our society will surely implement initiatives like the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund for COVID-19 responders, the balance of what they were obliged to do vs. what they volunteered to do will have ramifications for disability support. Presenting those responders as soldiers does them a disservice. It whitewashes the elective nature of their sacrifice and, potentially, normalizes their deaths as the inevitable consequence of any war.