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Maintaining Ethics and Research Integrity Even in Times of Crisis: COVID-19

Author: Professor José Frantz and Mologadi Makwela

The urgency of finding a cure for COVID-19, cannot and does not justify the betrayal of ethical considerations.

(Published - 6 April 2020)

Over the weekend, a video emerged showing two doctors from Europe, proposing coronavirus vaccine testing should be done on Africans because the continent lacked the resources to defend against COVID-19. This is despite evidence showing that European countries are among the hardest hit by the coronavirus.

Justifying his deplorable suggestion, one of the doctors, Jean-Paul Mira, went on to say: “We tried things on prostitutes because they are highly exposed and do not protect themselves”. These deeply disturbing comments are cause for reflection on the importance of research ethics, especially in times of crisis. That very few regulatory authorities came out to publicly denounce these statements, is equally disturbing.

Defining ethical behaviour can sometimes be difficult. Clinical trials on humans have been conducted for centuries. However, the ethical attitudes of researchers need to be taken into account. This is even more critical as the world desperately searches for a cure in these difficult times. However, research ethics must be maintained. The urgency of finding a cure cannot and does not justify the betrayal of ethical considerations.

Keywords in ethics include – but are not limited to – respect, do no harm and consideration for vulnerable groups. The statements made by the French doctors contradict all of these. If left unchecked, unethical utterances may lead to unethical acts. So how do we address this betrayal of ethical considerations in times of crisis?

Instead of fuelling the flames of prejudice through senseless and ill-informed comments, now is the time to shift our mindsets towards citizen-centric governance and people-centric research to guide our responses going forward.

For too long, the world has excused unethical comments, ‘othering’ and insult inflicted on people in the Global South by the North. Momentary attention is paid to these incidents, with palpable outrage displayed online and reported in the media. Once the outrage subsides – often within a matter of hours or days – we forget about it and move on until the next insult comes; as was the case with comments by Camille Locht and Jean-Paul Mira. However, the impact of these types of statements lingers long after they are uttered.

Yet, what this pandemic has illustrated, from the start, is that we are all the same. None of us is immune. Any of us can be affected if we do not heed the warnings and take precautionary measures. For the first time, nations are all undergoing the same circumstances as each other.

It is therefore essential to change mindsets, not only in research practice but in what is communicated and shared on various online platforms. This is also an opportune moment to broaden and decolonise our thinking. Specifically, we must decolonise our education and research practices and change the dominance of views from the North dictating what ought to be done in the South.

As researchers in Africa, we must work together to draw attention to the vast amounts of knowledge produced on our continent to provide solutions to the problem the world is facing.  Using our shared similarities, including tapping into indigenous knowledge systems, we must strive to highlight points of leverage or to offer a different perspective and shift mindsets.  

Broadening knowledge and championing people-centred research must underpin the next phase of scholarly evolution. If we change and break down the exclusionary mechanisms that promote or amplify some views over others, perhaps we may begin to change the mindset of people in the North regarding people in the South.

  • Professor Frantz is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation at the University of the Western Cape 
  • Ms Makwela is the Communication Manager, Centre of Excellence in Food Security, University of the Western Cape

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