A duty ot treat? A right to refrain? Bangladeshi physicians in moral dilemma during COVID-19

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A duty ot treat? A right to refrain? Bangladeshi physicians in moral dilemma during COVID-19


Swazo, Norman K.
Talukder, Md. Munir Hossain
Ahsan, Mohammad Kamrul



Publication Date



Background: Normally, physicians understand they have a duty to treat patients, and they perform accordingly consistent with codes of medical practice, standards of care, and inner moral motivation. In the case of COVID-19 pandemic in a developing country such as Bangladesh, however, the fact is that some physicians decline either to report for duty or to treat patients presenting with COVID-19 symptoms. At issue ethically is whether such medical practitioners are to be automatically disciplined for dereliction of duty and gross negligence; or, on the contrary, such physicians may legitimately claim a professional right of autonomous judgment, on the basis of which professional right they may justifiably decline to treat patients. Methods: This ethical issue is examined with a view to providing some guidance and recommendations, insofar as the conditions of medical practice in an under-resourced country such as Bangladesh are vastly different from medical practice in an industrialized nation such as the USA. The concept of moral dilemma as discussed by philosopher Michael Shaw Perry and philosopher Immanuel Kant's views on moral appeal to "emergency" are considered pertinent to sorting through the moral conundrum of medical care during pandemic. Results: Our analysis allows for conditional physician discretion in the decision to treat COVID-19 patients, i.e., in the absence of personal protective equipment (PPE) combined with claim of duty to family. Physicians are nonetheless expected to provide a minimum of initial clinical assessment and stabilization of a patient before initiating transfer of a patient to a "designated" COVID-19 hospital. The latter is to be done in coordination with the national center control room that can assure admission of a patient to a referral hospital prior to ambulance transport. Conclusions: The presence of a moral dilemma (i.e., conflict of obligations) in the pandemic situation of clinical care requires institutional authorities to exercise tolerance of individual physician moral decision about the duty to care. Hospital or government authority should respond to such decisions without introducing immediate sanction, such as suspension from all clinical duties or termination of licensure, and instead arrange for alternative clinical duties consistent with routine medical care.

Primary Classification


Secondary Classification

8.1; 9.1; 21.1

Primary keywords

communicable diseases [pri]; occupational exposure [pri]; physician patient relationship [pri]; professional autonomy [pri]

Secondary keywords

clinical ethics; emergency care; guidelines; moral obligations; physicians; philosophy; refusal to treat; risk assessment




Immanuel Kant


COVID-19; Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Journal Article

Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities 2020 September 9 5(1): 7: 23 p.


Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Primary Document Type



136 refs.





“A duty ot treat? A right to refrain? Bangladeshi physicians in moral dilemma during COVID-19,” Islamic Medical & Scientific Ethics, accessed January 19, 2021, http://imse.ibp.georgetown.domains/items/show/38276.