Moral dilemmas of handling the virus

Moral dilemmas of handling the virus

It is hard to calibrate a commensurate response to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Owing to the lack of accurate and reliable information, a media feeding frenzy and the mass psychology of fear, the choice has become all or nothing, not much in between. Individuals, societies and states worldwide are now incentivised to overdo it and err on the side of caution, being safe rather than sorry. This means that the likelihood of "overshooting" with Covid responses is likely to heighten in the foreseeable future in view of morally unacceptable alternatives.

To be sure, Covid-19 numbers are stark. By Thursday, infections worldwide were already close to one million, with a death toll approaching 50,000. Worse, the fact that the coronavirus is inexorably making its way through societies and communities across oceans and continents strikes fears everywhere. Unlike previous global threats and calamities, from war and natural disasters to previous pandemics, there seems nothing like Covid-19.

International authorities have been helpful but inconsistent. For example, the World Health Organization suggests that the virus may be airborne, that it can be contracted regardless of conventional social distancing. Reports of virus mutation have exacerbated global jitters, while efforts to find a vaccine seem some distance away. The WHO also has faced scrutiny for extolling China's early handling and arrest of the coronavirus while excluding Taiwan's spectacular containment of it over the same period.

Nevertheless most governments have undertaken stringent measures to stem and contain the contagious pneumonia-related, flu-like disease. As a result, more than half of humanity are currently under varying degrees of "lockdown," maintaining relative distance and separation socially and confined to their homes and living areas. The world economy has nearly ground to a halt. World trade is facing more friction than at any time since the global trading system was set up seven decades ago. Supply chains are pervasively disrupted. Airlines will not see airtime for some time, as empty airports attest.

Global economic conditions this year are projected to be as dim as the Global Financial Crisis in 2008-09, even comparable to deep economic contractions associated with the depression of the 1930s. As trade and travel decline, borders have come up. Nationals of many stripes have come home. Nationalism is rearing its ugly head.

Undoubtedly, global societies are gripped by fear and panic in a media-feeding frenzy. It is a kind of herd instinct we often read about and are supposed to avoid. But we don't. It is why stock markets crash, and do so again periodically. It is like the textbook story of a crowded cinema where someone shouts "fire". With or without smoke, a stampede for the exits takes place while information is incomplete and possibly inaccurate.

Social media networks like Facebook are the fear multiplier of coronavirus. Left to their own devices with more idle time to sit out Covid-19 blues, people everywhere constantly tune in to their smartphones, which are designed to suck them in and compete for their attention with content that feeds on fear-mongering.

The moral dilemma of Covid-19 is that its responses cannot be called out for overreaction. There is absolutism in any preventable death. If a death can be averted, then it must be. That one million infections in proportion to 7.8 billion people represents 0.0001% would be a negligible margin of error in statistical surveys. But to say one million lives don't matter statistically is morally repugnant. Nor can the mortality rate of 5% be equated with any statistical number. Lives must be saved if they can be.

How Covid-19 is counted has been a bone of contention. A broad consensus suggests that there is insufficient testing and underreporting in many countries. It means that the overall number of infections should be much higher. Epidemiology Professor John Ioannidis of Stanford University has reckoned that the infections that are not being included may be a factor of "three or 300". The higher the number of infections, the lower the mortality rate.

In Italy, where Covid-19 casualties and death toll have been most alarming, a scientific adviser to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has pointed out that "only 12% of death certificates have shown direct causality from coronavirus," meaning that Covid-19 is indicated as the cause of death even if patients were already sick and died from other illnesses. That Covid-19 deaths have beset those older than 65 with existing heath ailments is also morally unpalatable because the elderly represent a significant demographic. Besides, most of us can relate to the 65-plus age group directly or indirectly, being among them or knowing people who are there.

The eventual endgame for Covid-19 will crucially depend on how the few mid-range countries that are trying to overcome this nasty disease without resorting to cancer-like treatments, including Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Sweden. These countries are allowing schools and some public activities to operate for a semblance of normal life and the benefit of economic activity in conjunction with strict precautions, such as face masks and the highest hygiene standards. For its bold approach of trying to build "herd immunity" in the face of the virus, the United Kingdom's government faced growing criticism and is being forced to backtrack towards tougher measures.

But ultimately, it may be the right approach. Eventually, the coronavirus will have to be "lived with" like strains of flu in the past, even after a vaccine is found. Apart from heightened hygiene, part of the new emphasis should be on immunity-building lifestyles in terms of diet and physical fitness in tandem with a work-life balance.

It is a moral and ethical dilemma to note that Covid-19 responses are disproportionate so far to the deadly price to be paid later for potential economic depression and personal despair from job losses, corporate bankruptcies, and other untold hardships and sufferings among hundreds of millions, especially low-income earners.

But there is an equivalent moral hazard in not calling out the fear of fear.In other words, we must not let the fear of coronavirus do more harm than the virus itself.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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