Ethics and health security in the Australian COVID-19 context: A critical interpretive literature review


Anson Fehross, Kari Pahlman, Diego S Silva

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, 8 November 2023. DOI:

Background The concept of “health security” is often used to motivate public health responses, yet the ethical values that underpin this concept remain largely unexamined. The recent Australian responses to COVID-19 serve as an important case study by which we can analyse the pre-existing literature to see what ethical values shaped, and continue to shape, Australia’s response.

Methods We conducted a critical interpretive literature review of academic and grey literatures within key databases, resulting in 2,220 sources. After screening for duplicates and relevance, we analysed ninety-six sources.

Results First, risk and uncertainty are a leading focus, with a heavy concentration on risks to life and health. Second, free movement, safety, and security were recurringly emphasized, albeit narrowly focused upon the safety of the population. Third, legitimacy was a recurring theme, and it is here that discussions of “health security” figured highly.

Conclusion Discussions of harm from government and associated official bodies fail to adequately distinguish between various senses of harm. Moreover, while the literature often discusses the balancing of rights, the steps involved in the weighing of these rights is rarely adequately explained and defended. We suggest that decision-makers should endeavour to clearly identify and defend the values undergirding their decisions in the public sphere.

Related Cross-cutting Themes

  • Ethics