The reaction to pandemic of 2020 reminds me of Trolley problem. There is a runaway trolley, COVID-19, in this case, and there are two possible scenarios ahead. One, do nothing and allow the trolley to kill people, or two, pull the lever (implement lockdown), diverting the trolley onto the side track to kill fewer people but make life miserable for many more people than in the first option. Which is the most ethical option?
There is no clear answer. In the case of the original dilemma, people tend to pull the lever to save more lives. In the epidemic case, society split up into a broad spectrum of opinions with two extreme poles. On one end, we want to save as many lives as possible, no matter the cost; on the other end, we don’t want to limit anyone’s freedom.
I can see good arguments on both sides; both make sense, but which is the more ethical approach? Pandemic is a global issue that cannot be solved by one country, similarly like sustainable development (climate change). We need to find an agreement between all nations in the world on how to survive the pandemic.
To save me from going crazy, I didn’t follow the news closely about what is happening around COVID-19. I checked the news daily only in my country (the Czech Republic) when the situation or precaution changes were happening nearly every day. Still, I read or listened to pandemic updates from time to time, and I was disappointed that most discussions looked on the issue from the perspective of the economy (or freedom) versus health. I think this mindset is the reason why society is so polarized. I don’t believe that it’s one or the other; it’s both.
Sweden is an example that wasn’t choosing one or the other. It’s a pity that people used Sweden as an example to support their cause without further checking. The camp protecting economy and freedom used Sweden to prove lenient rules are the way to go; on the other hand, health supporters also had enough reasons to prove otherwise. Either case, we cannot tell which one is better before the pandemic is gone. Moreover, Sweden’s example is not that easy as it seems.
In some newspapers, you could read that preventive measures in Sweden were not strict. But it’s true only partially. As I understand, they didn’t have a legal framework for lockdown, but, on the other hand, they had law enforcing people to not spread the virus already in place. To make sure people follow that law, they had to make sure that recommendations are constant, everyone knows what to do, and instructions are possible to follow. Not just for weeks but months or even years. (Let’s keep aside many differences to other countries which made covid to spread slower in Sweden, at least before November.)
During the first wave in the Czech Republic, we were “the best in covid.“ We closed borders and restricted social life, and most people stayed home. Apart from a few cases, almost no one heard about anyone infected. Of course, it brought reasonable questions: why are we doing it? Isn’t covid just some mild flu?
Relentless lockdown brings excellent results but for what price? Czech citizens didn’t want to stay home and talk about any future lockdown, and the populists’ premier decided to fulfill that will, probably because of coming elections. I don’t think he will win. The result is we wasted precious time during summer, our government ignored scientists, and we were hit again. Suddenly, we were “the worst in covid.”
Because we didn’t want lockdown and the government promised there would not be any, no real lockdown was happening. Instead, everything was forbidden, including going out and seeing friends, with only one exception: you could go to work or shop for groceries. The most bizarre regulation was reducing opening hours, causing a higher density of people in shops. For me, this is a lockdown version destroying businesses. It’s not officially called lockdown; industry can go on, so according to our president, “the economy is not hurt,” so the government doesn’t have to help.
I was shocked to hear culture or fitness and many other sectors aren’t part of the economy, and thus those businesses can be closed for the longest time. Our society has two serious issues, consumerism (we buy too much unnecessary stuff) and obesity (we overeat and eat the wrong food without exercising). In such hard times, we could support a decrease in production and an increase in immunity by promoting a better diet and exercise. But we chose the exact opposite.
I understand the choice, though. I don’t envy officials in charge. Lockdown costs the government a lot of money invested in social help. Our government injected significant financial aid already during the first wave, and that has to be paid. There is no money left for the second wave; there is only debt from the first one. Protecting the economy makes sense. But.
First, the economy will be hurt in any case. If we do nothing, people get sick, they will not be able to work, and thus factories will have to shut down anyway. Or, suppose we keep the economy running (as we did), but we close some “unimportant” sectors. In that case, it will not stop the virus much, and people from “unimportant” businesses will economically suffer, buy less stuff, and thus lead to less profit for the “main” economy.
Second, humans evolved into a social society. Cultural life is fundamental for cooperation, which helped us to survive. It’s deeply rooted in us. We need to socialize and do activities that make us happy and boost us with positive energy. In my case, it’s theaters or concerts, traveling or hiking, or dancing. That positive energy cannot be replaced by live streams, virtual reality, or video calls.
Uncertainty and shortage of income (for many people working in services) is already an enormous reason for stress. Omitting activities where one can forget about everyday issues and release the pressure is the last step before falling into a deep depression. Depression is undoubtedly not good for immunity. How long can it take before the immune system of the majority is in ruins? I see myself as a positive person with a steady job even during the pandemic, yet I was overwhelmed by sadness for a while in the middle of the second wave.
That’s why I liked what I heard from Sweden. Instead of ruining many young people’s lives by dragging them into financial crises or depressions or both, or letting many people from risky groups die, they tried to consider all aspects of the equation. I don’t want to say the Swedish government did the best job. I’m trying to say we all should think about all consequences. SARS-CoV-2 is not our only enemy.
During the pandemic, the values we preserve are our biggest enemy. I was thinking about how the year 2020 situation would work in a small but modern tribe. I will simplify the complexity a lot; no precautions against the virus are black and white. Also, we know very little. Many studies were done and published, but we need to wait for peer-reviews to find which research is more valuable to get out of the pandemic. So, please, excuse my oversimplification.
Let’s have only three groups of people: two risky groups, old and sick, and the healthy young individuals. Once the virus comes into the village, how could people agree on the solution? In my ideal model, it’s moral to protect the ones who need it. At some other time, it could be the healthy young ones who need help from wise old ones, but during a pandemic (at least COVID-19, each pandemic affects different age groups), it’s the other way around. Of course, young people should lower their encounters and wear masks.
But no one should forbid the healthy ones to stay healthy. That means they can exercise (e.g., fitness, going on hiking holiday, etc.), they can get an education (e.g., kids can go to school, socialize there, and parents can work, etc.), and they can have fun (e.g., going to theater or cinema, meet closest friends, have dinner outside, etc.). That way, the group that should take care of others has the necessary finances and energy.
Even if many services are still open, some have to be closed, such as big concerts or overfilled parties or factories with poor conditions. People in those businesses will be financially impacted the most to protect others. That’s why the old ones have to help: the old ones who accumulated enough wealth should financially support those out of a job.
What about the sick ones? Those have to be protected in all cases. Others will support them as much as they can also during a pandemic, but one thing is expected from them too: they will try the best not to be sick. In the case of obesity, they will fix their diet and will exercise. No one in the village should stay home without money because someone else chose to lead an unhealthy life.
So this is my ideal model focusing on staying healthy (physically, psychically, and economically) and reasonable. What we got instead? Healthy young people have to suffer economically to protect old and sick ones. Old ones will not help as every economic aid will be paid in the future from the young ones’ taxes to make them suffer even more. And obese people do not try to do anything about it as society does not give option even to healthy ones to stay in shape.
That is precisely the opposite of what we should aspire to. It’s like solving a loan with another loan. It doesn’t solve the issue; it worsens it. That is why I think epidemiologists, virologists, or immunologist shouldn’t be the only scientists deciding what to do. I trust them to analyze accurately the distribution of disease, or infection and exploitation of host cells, or how the immune system is affected after exploitation, respectively; but I don’t trust them to explore all the consequences in society.
My oversimplified model forgets entirely hospital capacity, mostly intensive care units, and doctors. In the end, this is the most crucial reason to “flatten the curve.” We want to save everybody, ideally. That is very moral, I would say. But aren’t we weak because of the style of life we are living? I wonder how many people are truly healthy or at least try to be. I’m not super healthy, but I’m trying.
We don’t have only the COVID-19 pandemic but also the obesity pandemic. With precaution for the former, we deepen the later one. We act like it’s OK to drink alcohol, overeat, eat wrong food such as sugar, sit all the time, and so on. But it’s certainly not OK.
Maybe if most of the population thinks they can sit long hours in front of a computer, eat wrongly, drink, and use pills to undo their behavior, there is no other way than to shut down everything as there are not enough healthy individuals.
My biggest issue with any regulation is that the priority is put on the economy and wrongly chosen the most critical sectors. For example, in the book Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, sociologist Nicholas Christakis shares that meatpacking factories were not closed in the United States. Yet, from the epidemiologist’s point of view, it’s one of the worst places to be in during an epidemic. In Czech Republic, we have serious issues causing death every ten minutes right now, yet everyone is speaking about closing often harmless services but not dangerous factories.
Or some other example: pilates with slow, gentle breathing is much better than Zumba class with rapid, deep one, yet both are closed or opened together. I would like to see politicians not to restrict the whole sectors but to focus on the real threats. Personally, I would be OK to give up on meat or other perks of our society (anything produced in a factory with poor conditions) instead of following those unfair rules.
Maybe the COVID-19 pandemic is our wake-up call to realize we live by fake stories. We might think we rule nature. But we don’t, and we will never do. We cannot cheat on the universe’s laws.
Probably it’s time we think more about our lives.