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Alberto Giubilini: Why I Got Involved with Collateral Global

‘I wondered whether prevailing approaches to managing COVID-19 were causing profound social, health, and economic harms that were not always measured or acknowledged.’

I decided to get involved with Collateral Global mainly because I thought we needed a better way of assessing pandemic management than mainstream media and most academics offered us.  CG is, in my view, the best platform and the best group of people to carry out a more evidence-based, rational, and ethically-informed discussion around pandemic management. It is a constant reminder of the importance of the human factor and certain neglected values, most notably individual freedoms. when making policy decisions based on science.

I have to admit that the decision to join the group was, in the first instance, mostly a reaction to what I was seeing around me. I was surprised, disappointed, and saddened by how many people passively accepted and often endorsed restrictions of individual freedoms, including their own. I also observed the detrimental effects of wholescale lockdown on many around me – missed cancer diagnoses, mental illness, job losses – and I wondered whether prevailing approaches to managing COVID-19 were causing profound social, health, and economic harms that were not always measured or acknowledged.

‘As I saw it, implausible targets or constantly shifting goalposts demonstrated that individual freedoms were being sacrificed for an ideal that could never be achieved.’

My concern was not so much with the general public, whose opinion is largely shaped by the kind of messages they receive from mainstream media. My main concern was the many experts and academics – especially colleagues working in philosophy and ethics – who appeared not to notice or understand the costs of interventionist pandemic management, instead focusing exclusively on fears of a new disease. I started seeing too much moralism and too much rationalisation of one’s own fears and gut reactions.

The former – moralism – manifested itself in certain narratives that praised the alleged value of self-sacrifice, including sacrifices of individual freedoms, for the sake of an alleged common good. I see this attitude behind the refusal even to consider focused protection strategies. The latter – rationalisations of fears and gut reactions – led to setting implausible targets (the utopian ‘eradication’) and moving goalposts further down the way, from ‘flattening the curve’ to ‘when we have a vaccine’ to ‘when children are vaccinated’. But when arguments are motivated by fears and gut reactions – as understandable as these might be –  rather than on evidence and reason, no target will be enough to feel safe, except perhaps the implausible ‘eradication’. Thus, as I saw it, implausible targets or constantly shifting goalposts demonstrated that individual freedoms were being sacrificed for an ideal that could never be achieved.  CG explains and provides evidence for the cost of the loss of these individual freedoms as well as the implausibility of projected targets.

Slogans such as ‘we are all in it together’, ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’, and ‘follow the science’ show a disregard for evidence and preclude proper analysis. As ethicists, our responsibility is to think critically and ethically about all issues, even in a crisis. Our responsibility is to ensure that impartiality prevails when we consider the interests of everyone that is affected, not just by a virus, but also by the measures to manage its spread. If we don’t, the risk is that we end up accepting what simply sounds right rather than looking for what actually is right. We opt for the comfortable over the uncomfortable because we care more about our feelings than about ethical values. And this is moralism, not ethics.

‘Adopting an ethical and human-focussed approach to the pandemic is as important as adopting a scientific one.’

I thought that something had to be done to counteract this tendency, particularly by academics, but I was not sure how. For me, CG presented an opportunity to try to steer the debate in the opposite direction – to show people that there is a different way to look at the pandemic, the measures taken to tackle it, and what we can and cannot reasonably expect moving forward. CG also offered the opportunity to address the pandemic using a multidisciplinary approach – a step that would’ve been regarded as intuitive and necessary in pre-COVID academia but had since been buried under meaningless phrases like ‘follow the science’. Thus, when Prof. Sunetra Gupta, with whom I took part in a few seminars and workshops within our University, mentioned the CG project and the opportunity to be involved, I didn’t hesitate to accept.

One thing that I particularly appreciate in this group is the awareness of both the relevance and the limitation of one’s own discipline, including scientific disciplines. Adopting an ethical and human-focussed approach to the pandemic is as important as adopting a scientific one. These approaches answer different types of questions, and you cannot address one type without addressing the other. Whether we should, to what extent, and how to contain the spread of a virus are as much scientific questions as they are ethical ones.

In the long term, I hope that CG can help society move from platitudes like ‘follow the science’ to actually using science to ensure the well-being of as many people as possible. And in that future, I hope we measure well-being in terms of health, fairness, and freedom – not just a single narrow factor.

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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