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COVID and the moral matrix: Will the new ‘lockdown code of ethics’ persist beyond the pandemic?

The COVID pandemic has upended the free world’s moral framework, laying time-honoured norms of personal agency, social responsibility, and risk tolerance to waste.

Consider what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had to say about pandemic management in 2008:

“The notion that we need to ‘trade liberty for security’ is misguided and dangerous. Public health concerns cannot be addressed with law enforcement or national security tools.”

13 years later, in a guest essay in The New York Times, the ACLU proclaimed that “the real threat to civil liberties comes from states banning vaccine and mask mandates”.

The shift in the Overton window is real.

It isn’t clear, at this juncture, whether society will snap back to its pre-COVID morality or reshape itself around this new “moral matrix”.

If the matrix solidifies, life will become more secure, more predictable- and to some of us, a lot less interesting.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with moral shifts. The gradual shift in society’s view of homosexuality- from an inherently immoral condition to a morally neutral variant of biology- has enabled gay individuals and communities to flourish. A similar sea change has rocked our perceptions of physical and intellectual disability, lifting a burden of shame from millions of shoulders. We used to think animals exist solely for human sustenance and pleasure, but now regard them as sentient beings in their own right (and with their own rights). If cats and dogs and whales could speak, surely they would thank us.

Does the Lockdown Code of Ethics represent the same kind of moral evolution? On the face of it, a moral code that calls for discipline, self-abnegation and unity of purpose has a lot to recommend it. But that’s not how the Code plays out in the real world. Laying out its core tenets can help us understand why.

According to the Code:

1. Human life has an unbounded value that places it above all other ethical concerns.

Life is sacred. It cannot be part of any cost-benefit transaction. The fact of living trumps quality of life, full stop.

2. Not doing everything possible to extend life is unethical.

Material and psychological setbacks can be overcome, death cannot. If we have the scientific tools to extend life, we should spare no effort to do to.

3. Age should not factor into the life-saving calculus.

We should labour as hard to save a ninety-year-old as a nine-year-old. A life is a life. The health-economic measure of QALY [quality-adjusted life years] is reductive and offensive.

4. Individual health is a collective responsibility.

This applies especially to transmissible diseases. Our collective duty to keep transmission in check overrides our freedom to manage personal risk. If someone catches a disease from us, we bear full responsibility.

5. Human rights rank far behind public safety.

Safety categorically trumps liberty, and a state of health emergency supersedes individual rights.

Those of us who fall into the lockdown-critical camp have called these tenets into question.

We have argued that the sanctity of life resides in lived experience, rather than biologic subsistence.

If saving lives requires that we take away most of the things that make life worth living, is there a point when the tradeoff no longer makes sense?

Stanford University professor of medicine and economics Jay Bhattacharya has called lockdowns “not a human way to live”, while Oxford university epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta has described them as “unpoetic”.

People who regard the extension of biological life as society’s highest duty may find such words offensive. But to those of us whose bones cry for culture, connection, and communion, the words make perfect sense.

We have argued that the aim of “saving every life,” while undoubtedly well intentioned, may incur too high a cost to society.

Plunging fifty people into long-term depression or food insecurity to extend one person’s life does not necessarily support the greater good. We do not have unlimited resources to throw at the human family, and morally courageous leaders recognize that public health involves trade-offs and tough choices. Public health decisions driven primarily by emotions- “when my uncle got COVID, I realized how serious it is”- rarely serve society’s best interests. Effective leadership requires a certain detachment—an ability to balance costs and benefits, including life itself.

As Daniel Hannan remarked in an article in The Telegraph earlier this year”: “The one thing worse than putting a value on life is refusing to do so.”

We have argued that pandemic policy should take age into consideration – the age of those most affected by COVID and those most affected by lockdowns.

Policies that seek to push back the death of our oldest and frailest at all costs place an undue burden on younger people (leaving aside the question of whether the policies actually prevent deaths).

Most worrisome of all, lockdowns and protracted restrictions set young people up for a bleaker, more uncertain future. Nobody is suggesting that we simply leave grandma to die or that grandma is “less valuable” than little Aislynn. It’s simply that grandma has already had her shot at life, while Aislynn has not. We should be thinking more of Aislynn.

Age matters.

Ethics committees aside, most of us understand this instinctively. Anyone who has attended the funeral of a nine year-old and a 90 year-old knows the difference in their bones. For all the moral outrage it has recently provoked, the QALY metric plays a time-honoured role in health economics. It underpins many healthcare funding decisions and helps us dole out limited resources fairly. Confronting the “agephant in the room” may be awkward, but ignoring it hasn’t done our COVID science advisors and policymakers any favours.

We have argued that duty of care should have (and has always had) limits, and that a healthy society balances collective and individual needs.

Even during a pandemic, individuals can’t bear full responsibility for everyone else’s health. Calling people killers for unwittingly transmitting a virus flies in the face of biological reality. On a planet shared by humans and viruses, all of us have partaken in transmission chains that culminate in some deaths. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not murder.

If we micromanage human interaction as long as COVID might be lurking in our midst, we can never live full lives again.

We have argued that human rights are, if not unalienable, pretty damned important.

They imbue life with dignity, purpose and hope. If they matter at all, they matter at all times. While personal freedoms may need to flex during a pandemic, they shouldn’t simply disappear.

If nothing else, the equipoise between public safety and civil liberties merits an uncensored discussion.

We have argued all these things, but on balance we have not done a good job selling our position.

Perhaps the tide of fear and indignation is too powerful for skeptical voices to break through. If the moral matrix swirling around us becomes part of our permanent landscape, we skeptics agree that something important will have been lost.

It remains to be seen whether history takes our side.

Source: Gabrielle Bauer – BOURNBROOK MAGAZINE