Ethics of humanitarian action during Covid-19

How do we understand and articulate the humanitarian duties we may owe one another in times of crisis?

Discussions of humanitarian duty have tended to focus on state-state and state-citizen obligations (as in responsibility to protect debates) or on the interpersonal duties of humanitarian assistance (articulated in France, for example, in terms of penalties for ‘non-assistance à personne en danger’).

Rarely are humanitarian duties discussed in the context of what the private sector “owes” to others in times of emergency. This became a major inflection point during the Covid-19 pandemic where calls to suspend patents or to share (transfer) technology were for the most part ignored, despite the acute challenges of vaccine purchasing and supply.

This roundtable explores the notion of humanitarian duties in light of the public-private dichotomy to understand how it may be an important part of the way in which we think about “duties” in the context of greater good challenges.

The roundtable was chaired by Simon Reed-Henry (Peace Research Institute Oslo, PRIO) and features comments by Jonathan Wolff (University of Oxford), Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée (University of Oslo) and Kristoffer Lidén (PRIO).

This roundtable is the fourth in a series on the ethics of humanitarian action, and follows earlier roundtables on engaging with the Taliban, redlines for aid in Afghanistan and the ethics of humanitarian neutrality in Syria.


Jonathan Wolff is the Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He is currently developing a new research program on revitalising democracy and civil society. His other work concerns equality, disadvantage, social justice and poverty, as well as applied topics such as public safety, disability, gambling and the regulation of recreational drugs.

Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo. He is interested in global health governance and global cooperation to manage dangerous disease outbreaks, such as Ebola.

Kristoffer Lidén is a Senior Researcher at PRIO and the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS). His research centres on the ethics of international affairs, with a focus on the fields of peacemaking, humanitarian action, security and digital technologies. He currently leads the project Red lines and grey zones: exploring the ethics of humanitarian negotiations.


Simon Reed-Henry is an author, academic and policy analyst specialising in international and political affairs. He is Director of the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at Queen Mary University of London and Research Professor at PRIO, leading an international team examining the politics of duties in modern political society.

This webinar series is organised by Kristoffer Lidén at PRIO and the NCHS in collaboration with the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC) and the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV). The webinar series is part of the research project Red lines and grey zones. This discussion is also part of the Theory Lab of the research project Co-duties: Democratic duties, collective action, and the greater good after Covid-19.

Other relevant sources

Herzog et al. (2021). Covax must go beyond proportional allocation of covid vaccines to ensure fair and equitable access. BMJ, m4853. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4853. Critique of WHO/COVAX’s allocation framework for prioritizing population size over the importance of vulnerable groups, or the impact of the pandemic.

Emanuel et al. (2021). What are the obligations of pharmaceutical companies in a global health emergency? The Lancet, 398(10304), https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)01378-7. Questioning of the obligations of pharmaceutical companies during a pandemic – a rather fresh perspective on a debate largely state-centric and that tends to omit the reality of a market-based production. This created a debate, including this reply: da Fonseca et al. (2021). Obligations in a global health emergency. The Lancet, 398(10316), 2071. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)02345-X.

To cite this webinar: Reed-Henry, S., Wolff, J., de Bengy Puyvallée, A., & Lidén, K. (2023, 28 April). Ethics of humanitarian action during Covid-19. [Webinar]. Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies and Peace Research Institute Oslo. www.humanitarianstudies.no/events/the-role-of-moral-duties-in-global-distribution-of-covid-19-vaccines.