Enabling Ethical Analysis and Public Justification in State-Level Pandemic Responses in the United States

During the COVID-19 pandemic, state governments adopted numerous policies that profoundly affected personal and public life. These policies involved difficult trade-offs between individual freedoms, economic interests, public health, and other values. The Enabling Ethical Analysis and Public Justification in State-Level Pandemic Responses in the United States project seeks to understand how these difficult and sometimes high-stakes policy decisions were made, and how they were communicated with the public.

We aim to learn from people in state government who experienced these challenges in real time, and to use their experiences to come up with actionable guidance that can be applied in future public health emergencies. This research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Greenwall Foundation.

Our research includes the analysis of publicly available documents  as well as interviews in geographically and politically diverse states with policy makers, staff, and others who were involved in pandemic policy making. Through these interviews, we are interested in learning about how COVID-19 policy decisions were made in each state, and what went well in the COVID-19 policy process as well as the challenges. For example, we are interested in:

  • How were potential trade-offs between different policy goals managed?
  • Were stakeholders, such as business leaders, community advocates or religious leaders, consulted about COVID-19 policies?
  • How was the public informed about policies?
  • What was the role of COVID-19 task forces in the policymaking process?
  • What forms of policy guidance (such as guidance from public health experts or the federal government) were helpful and what forms were not?

We are focusing on four policy areas:

  • Mask policies
  • Vaccine policies, including vaccine mandates and vaccine allocation plans
  • Physical distancing policies, including restrictions on religious gatherings
  • Policies related to unemployment assistance

Related Publications

For more information, please contact the study’s Principal Investigator, Dr. Anne Barnhill, at abarnhi1@jh.edu.

Project Team

Anne Barnhill, PhD
Associate Research Professor
Travis N. Rieder, PhD
Director of the MBE Program; Assistant Director for Education Initiatives; Associate Research Professor
Katelyn Esmonde, PhD
Hecht-Levi Fellow
Brian Hutler, JD, PhD
Hecht-Levi Fellow

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