Thursday, January 27, 2022

Five Moral and Legal Questions Raised by the Covid-19 Pandemic

The world has now endured two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Four days ago--January 23--was the second anniversary of China's announcement of the lockdown of Wuhan.  The World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020.  On March 16, President Trump initiated the move to lockdowns in the United States in announcing "The President's Coronavirus Guidelines for America."  Within a few weeks, most state governors in the United States following Trump's lead and many political leaders around the world announced compulsory lockdowns.

In recent months, the Covid numbers--rates of infection and death--in many parts of the world have been as high as they were in the spring of 2020.  And yet, most governments have refused to reimpose the hard lockdowns.  There seems to be a move among many leaders to saying that this Covid virus is not going away, and so we might as well learn to live with it.  If so, doesn't this imply that the lockdowns of the spring of 2020 were mistaken, because most of us can see now that the likely social costs of prolonged lockdowns are greater than the likely social benefits?  I began arguing for that conclusion in April of 2020.

That was my answer to one of five moral and legal questions raised by the Covid pandemic that I have considered on this blog over the past two years.

Here are the five questions: (1) When and how did the public health experts decide that the Covid pandemic justified a lockdown of our social and economic life?  (2) Do the benefits of a hard lockdown exceed the costs?  (3) In the United States, are governmentally imposed lockdowns constitutional?  (4) When, where, and how did the SARS2 virus originate?  (5) If the virus leaked out of a laboratory in Wuhan, should we blame Francis Bacon, because the virologists in Wuhan were carrying out the modern scientific project first proposed by Bacon?

The surprising answer to my first question is that in fact public health experts have never done the moral analysis that would rationally justify the lockdowns.  After studying the history of public responses to pandemics and the pertinent documents about the deliberations in the winter and spring of 2020, I cannot see that public health experts ever demonstrated to themselves and others that a moral cost-benefit analysis showed that the costs of a governmental lockdown of society were far less than the public health benefits.  Political leaders stumbled into issuing lockdown orders without any rational justification for doing this.  I wrote about this in April of 2020.

To the question of whether in fact the likely benefits of a lockdown outweigh the likely costs, my answer has been no.  I wrote about this in April and November of 2020.

To the question of whether the lockdowns in the United States were constitutional, I have answered no.

In answering the last two questions about the origins of the SARS2 virus, I have changed my mind.  Originally, in May and August of 2020, I agreed with the popular belief that the virus originated by natural evolution through a spillover from bats to humans, perhaps through some intermediary animals such as pangolins.

But then, in May and August of 2021, I argued that there was increasing evidence for the claim that the virus probably leaked out of Shi Zhengli's laboratory in Wuhan, and that the virus was probably created in her laboratory by "gain-of--function" research funded by the U.S. government.  Over the past six months, the evidence for this has continued to increase; and I will write about this in my next post.

Now I am sure many readers are thinking that there is a sixth great moral and legal question raised by the pandemic that I have not addressed:  Are the legally coercive mandates for Covid vaccinations justifiable restrictions of individual liberty?  

This question has come up only briefly in my post with references to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), which upheld the constitutionality of compulsory smallpox vaccinations.  In his opinion for the majority in that decision, Justice Harlan rightly appealed to the Lockean principle that the liberty of the individual may be properly restricted to prevent injury to others.  I may freely exercise my rights to life, liberty, and property so long as this does not harm others in their life, liberty, or property.

I have decided that for me the likely benefits of Covid vaccination are far greater than the likely costs.  I have had three shots of the Moderna vaccine. Like most of the people who have been vaccinated, I have made a rough calculation of the risks:  if I were unvaccinated, there might be a one percent chance that Covid would make me severely ill or kill me; and being vaccinated reduces that chance to almost zero.

Those who refuse to be vaccinated make a different calculation.  They reason that since there's a ninety-nine percent chance that they will not be killed by Covid, but there is some serious risk of harm from vaccination, it's best for them not to be vaccinated; and they should be free to make that choice for themselves.

We should agree with that only as long as we can see that their free choice to refuse vaccination does not impose any unreasonable harm on others.  It has been said that since the development of the vaccines, the Covid pandemic has become a "pandemic of the unvaccinated."  In that case, we could say that the unvaccinated are harming society by prolonging the pandemic.  But this might be debatable considering that even the vaccinated have some slight chance of "breakthrough" infections (maybe 1 in a 100).

The clearest harm to society from the unvaccinated is that they are more likely than the vaccinated to become so severely ill that they need hospitalization, and this can create a scarcity of hospital beds.  If this creates a need for "triage" rationing of scarce medical resources, this might justify telling the unvaccinated who need medical care for severe Covid cases that they will have to go to the bottom of the waiting list.

In any case, it seems to me that it's generally better to rely on social persuasion rather than legal coercion in promoting vaccination.  But that social persuasion would include allowing private individuals and organizations (including businesses and employers) to enforce vaccination mandates.

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