The Ethics & Language of Lockdown
How the intended solution became the problem.
Suppose we were told today that we need to stay in lockdown for the next year. Most people would find that unacceptable. The costs are not sustainable for that long.
When we render life less meaningful by limiting social interaction, we compromise the very same health that tight restrictions allegedly protect.“
Decisions are ethical when they strike a reasonable balance among competing values: liberty, justice, expected wellbeing (including health), and the meaningfulness of our experiences. The latter, which Aristotle called ‘eudaimonia’, is no less valuable than the narrow notion of ‘health’ used to justify pandemic policies – the absence of infectious disease. In reality, health is a state of complete psycho-physical wellbeing as the World Health Organization (WHO) should know, given that is precisely the definition used in their constitution.
Humans are social by nature, and meaningful life is an essential component of health. Depriving humans of natural social connections for too long inhibits the ability to live meaningfully and, thus, denies people the capacity for normal functioning and wellbeing. When we render life less meaningful by limiting social interaction, we compromise the very same health that tight restrictions allegedly protect.
In this sense, long term restrictions like lockdowns are self-defeating.
At the very least, one would expect a huge increase in mental health problems from lockdowns of extended duration. In fact, the deterioration of collective mental health over the past 12 months is just one cost of lockdowns that this project will bring to the fore.
Thus, if such an announcement were made today, most people would see that one year of lockdown would not be worth the cost to our health and wellbeing, regardless of any expected health benefit.
Let’s step back in time to March 2020. We were not told back then that lockdown would last an entire year and that tight restrictions would become the default, long-term mitigation strategy. Had that extended timeframe been disclosed, most people would not have accepted it in the same way we would not accept it today. But we were not given a one-year duration because long-term lockdown was not the original plan. Lockdown was – and should be – seen as a rarely justifiable and always temporary measure to adopt only in extreme cases while figuring out how to strike a reasonable balance among the values mentioned above.
It was inevitable that, at some point, issues of intergenerational justice would be raised, given there is only so much you can ethically ask the majority of people to sacrifice to protect a small minority.“
Entering lockdown was supposed to be like pressing a ‘pause’ button on life. But more than one year later, that temporary ‘pause’ has turned into a full ‘stop’. We have halted societal functioning. We have disrupted the economy. We have eliminated so many of the experiences that make life meaningful and healthy…even human. And as we acclimated to these losses, we became desensitized to the exceptional quality of lockdown. Even as restrictions are lifted, we continue to keep future lockdowns on the table. That means we have not learned critical lessons about the costs. The Collateral Global project and website are here to help us understand those costs and remind us of that lesson.
Fairness and intergenerational justice have been compromised. Freedoms have been compromised. Health, in its broad sense, has been compromised. There is something to say for each of these ethical aspects.
Lockdown and other society-wide restrictions limit the fundamental rights of entire populations as an attempt to contain a disease that poses a serious risk to few. It was inevitable that, at some point, issues of intergenerational justice would be raised, given there is only so much you can ethically ask the majority of people to sacrifice to protect a small minority. Because such unfairness is an under-appreciated ethical problem, one thing the Collateral Global website intends to document is the devastating cost younger generations have paid and will continue to pay – perhaps for the rest of their lives – as a consequence of mandated restrictions.
The liberty of more vulnerable people is another critical yet neglected part of the picture. We never considered whether the elderly might choose to take on the risks from COVID-19 in service of the desire – or even need – to give meaning to their remaining time on earth. Many died alone in care homes. Many were denied social and familial interactions, which served as the primary source of meaning in their lives. We assumed, without consultation, that all elderly people would prefer to lower their risk from COVID-19, even when it meant indefinite isolation from family and friends.
That simply wasn’t true. Again, the cost for the elderly is a significant ethical problem and something that the Collateral Global website will try to document.
When slogans and rhetoric replace reason, you get the opposite of ethics. Morality becomes moralism.“
Even assuming it was right to prioritize protection from COVID-19 over the freedom of at-risk populations, we could have instituted a fairer system like selective shielding, which would have directed resources toward the vulnerable and allowed other groups to live unrestricted. However, we refused to seriously consider this option because of misplaced moral concerns, which were created and promoted through grand-sounding rhetoric around the alleged virtues of prolonged self-sacrifice and the alleged heroism of relinquishing freedoms for the alleged greater good. We adopted a perverse notion of equality whereby ‘we are all in this together’ became ‘we should make everyone worse off for the sake of ‘equality’.
When slogans and rhetoric replace reason, you get the opposite of ethics. Morality becomes moralism. In such a context, the human needs for freedom and meaningfulness transform into signals of selfishness. People are shamed for wanting their basic freedoms back. And that, too, is an ethical pitfall.
How did we end up accepting this situation?
We accepted it because we expected the duration of restrictions to be much shorter. An entire year of lockdown would have been unacceptable a year ago – just as it is now.
The appropriate response to crises is action, not reaction.“
We accepted it because we heard narratives that framed lockdown as an opportunity for self-discovery and reflection. But for social beings, isolation is only valuable, useful, and meaningful to the extent that it is a free choice. It can only be one part of a larger dynamic where we strike a personal balance between the social and intimate spheres of our lives.
We accepted it because we reacted with fear and panic. And when people panic, they either freeze up and cannot act, or react instinctively – often irrationally. We have seen examples of both.
Indeed, lack of action and rational responses drove prolonged lockdowns.
We stayed inside, paused our lives indefinitely, and hoped the problem would solve itself. Or that someone else would solve it – maybe some SAGE expert. That was the freezing part of panic.
We also reacted irrationally when we did things like shut down civil society and required quarantine for vaccinated travellers with multiple negative tests. That was the reactive part of panic.
The appropriate response to crises is action, not reaction. Panic was more understandable at the beginning when many believed the mortality rate of COVID-19 was higher than we now know it to be. Initial estimates suggested a mortality rate of 5-15% across all populations, which is certainly a frightening prospect. But we quickly learned that COVID-19 mortality is significantly lower and indeed is below 0.1% for people under 40, likely doubling every additional eight years of age (e.g. .2% at 48, .4% at 56, and so on.)
That estimate is low enough to characterize the current fears of the vast majority as irrational.
As the risk began to look less scary, our fears were stoked in other ways. We were scared, for instance, by the mainstream media’s focus on sensationalism rather than facts. The seemingly endless stories of people dying of COVID-19 scared us significantly more than the actual mortality figures mentioned above. And the faceless statistics in the unemployment data and the invisible pain of people confined to unsafe homes – those people’s stories have largely gone untold. The Collateral Global project also aims to give voice to those suffering in silence.
There comes a point at which prioritizing one’s fears becomes a selfish act – especially when those fears support policies that compromise the liberty and mental health of others. There also comes a point when the rhetoric of self-sacrifice and heroism is no longer moral but moralistic – a display of false virtue that produces almost no benefit and results in extremely harmful policies. And, finally, there comes a point at which those false virtue displays in the name of some ‘greater good’ are no longer rational but delusional. They become a way of justifying an immense loss of liberty with grand-sounding ideals.
Humans adapt to difficult circumstances in ways that other species do not. But this is only praiseworthy and valuable when we are unable to change the circumstances themselves. Those we can change for the better, we should change for the better. This includes our, thus far, unethical response to the pandemic. We need to do better in the future, and Collateral Global’s website is about helping us see the entire picture so that we can respond better next time.
Alberto Giubilini is a philosopher and Senior Research Fellow in practical ethics at the University of Oxford, specializing in public health ethics and the ethics of vaccination.
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