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Moral reasoning in the New Zealand government’s press briefings on Covid-19

4 months
Approved budget:
Ms Dinithi Bowatte
Dr Courtney Addison
Proposal type:
Ethics Summer Studentships
Lay summary
This project will explore the moral reasoning of New Zealand’s leaders during Covid-19, by analyzing transcripts of government’s daily press briefings throughout the initial lockdown period, and the return to Level 3 (in Auckland) and 2 (nationwide). Aotearoa’s response to Covid-19 has attracted international praise, and has helped to keep case and fatality rates relatively low by global standards. Communications about the disease itself, and the appropriate local response to it, have likely been instrumental to this success. While the broader project that this proposal is attached to is exploring how risk and uncertainty was communicated through official channels, we know that evidence alone rarely compels behaviour change (Kahan et al 2012, Nabi et al 2018). This project will provide evidence of how Aotearoa’s Covid-19 response was presented as an ethical task as well as a scientific one. Inspired by scholarship on the anthropology of ethics and science communication, this project will systematically assess how speakers at the daily press briefings mobilized moral language to communicate about Covid-19. The anthropology of ethics holds that ethical or moral thought are immanent in everyday life, locally constructed, and social negotiated. Rather than the supposedly universal dictates of moral philosophy, this approach views ethics as a cultural artefact that varies meaningfully across contexts. Ethics from this vantage is of and for everyone. As such, we can ask what ethical negotiations and judgements were invoked by our leaders during the Covid-19 crisis, and whether these influenced public health strategy and policy. This research contributes to the ‘ethics and infectious diseases’ and ‘resource allocation in a pandemic’ topic, and may also generate data of relevance to ‘The challenge of ensuring equity in health and research in Aotearoa New Zealand’. It does so by enriching our understanding of the ‘ethics’ around Covid-19, complementing existing bio- or research ethics standpoints with an anthropological ethics that centers the social and human aspects of navigating right and wrong in a context of high uncertainty. In doing so, this project will illuminate how ethical claims act as a collective resource for organizing our response to Covid-19, and shape concrete decision-making about this national response.