Flu vaccines and Ebola relief – do we have duties to get and to give?

Over 40 years ago, philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer published an article called “Famine affluence and morality”. The piece argued that we ought to give, generously, to relief efforts in East Bengal, where people were dying “from lack of food, shelter, and medical care”. He presents a strong and unsettling case for donating our money to an extent that most of us could not easily ponder – giving up most everything beyond our own subsistence needs.

I agree with Singer, though I cannot manage it myself. However, I don’t believe Singer imagined that readers would act upon his argument’s conclusion fully. I believe he wanted to leave them aspiring to do so in the face of the fear of giving so much. (Check out his website ‘The Life You Can Save’ for his latest efforts to create such laudable aspirations in all of us.)

Today I feel the same argument can be made with respect to Ebola relief. The bulk of the world has more or less stood by, at a convenient remove, watching (or not) as the virus has continued to wreak its havoc on distant lives.


Only in recent weeks, with its sudden proximity, has much attention been paid by those of us in safely far-flung countries – but largely out of fear. And, as often happens, fear trumps fact. We have lamentable tales of ignorance such as landlords refusing to rent apartments to people from affected countries. We have sudden calls for banning flights from those countries. We have immediate anxiety about our own physical and economic safety. We have sudden pressure for action – founded on FBEM – fear based evidence making. This is a close cousin of OBEM – opinion based evidence making. What should be apparent is that almost nobody in North America has anything whatsoever to fear at this point in time. Our exceptionally resourced health care systems leave us with all the necessary tools – as long as we use them well. (As you review IPAC procedures for flu season, remember that flu kills, too!)

What has not materialized around Ebola in many decades is the much needed immediate relief for those living through outbreaks. These needs are not complicated – beds, simple protective equipment, basic medical care, general relief supplies. Simple needs left unmet because the necessary funds are not forthcoming. Singer’s 40 year old argument still needs making – there is a duty to help for the sake of relieving the pain and suffering of others…not to worry irrationally about the minimal loss of resources to ourselves.


I wonder, too, if a close relative of this FBEM is not lurking behind some of the hesitation to get the annual flu vaccine. Yes, there can be reactions. Yes, a few have been reported as severe. And yes, the flu vaccine is not a surefire thing. But just how much of one’s reluctance to get the jab is based on true stories of dreadful outcomes? Is it weighed against the evidence that the flu jab is far safer than driving to work, and likely to prevent a good amount of suffering, even a few deaths (or a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, depending on the estimates you quote).

Is this fear of flu vaccine any more evidence based than the irrational fears of the actual minimal risk that Ebola presents to any of us in an affluent health care system? These two fears are like rival siblings – one sees us underestimate the risks we pose to others (when not vaccinated); the second has us overestimate the risk that others pose to us.

In both cases there are two conclusions I cannot help but make – firstly, give to Ebola relief. Any major relief charity is worthy – Medicins Sans Frontieres, the Humanitarian Coalition, UNICEF to mention a few. If you don’t want to give your own funds, then give a dollop of your time – contact your MP and MPP and tell them to make sure Canada gives more than its abysmal contribution to the relief work. Give to help others, not just to save your skin.

As for the vaccine, get it to protect others, if not yourself. The risks are, according to what I know, miniscule in getting the jab and far higher skipping it and giving the flu to others. If you have good evidence to the contrary, please do share it. If not, don’t risk sharing the flu.

In both situations we have moral duties which may require overcoming our fears. Aspire to that laudable virtue of courage – then get and give.