The View From Here: Moral choices in the time of COVID

Volodymyr Kish.

We are now several months into the COVID-19 pandemic and only starting to fully appreciate the tragic dimensions of the crisis that we have been forced into by a microscopic yet highly malicious virus. Our normal lives have been put on indefinite hold, our economies are at a standstill, people are dying by the thousands every day, and it looks like it will be a long time yet, before this scourge is conquered.

The crisis has been very effective in exposing the weaknesses within our health and emergency response systems, the inadequacies of long-term care facilities for the elderly, and the ability of some of our politicians to effectively deal with crisis situations. Perhaps even more important, it has brought to light a disturbing picture of a society uncertain about the moral and ethical implications of the various approaches being bandied about as to how we should deal with this existential threat.

The medical and scientific communities are pretty well united in their advice as to how to best deal with this pandemic. Until effective treatments and vaccines can be developed, and this will likely take twelve to eighteen months time, we must all isolate ourselves as much as possible, restrict our activities outside the home to the basic essentials, maintain social distancing when outside, and engage in frequent hand-washing and hygienic protocols. Understandably, one of the consequences of doing this entails shutting down most business and economic activity. This has resulted in significant unemployment, soaring social welfare costs, huge government deficits and severe financial hardship for many businesses, both large and small.

As the pandemic drags on, there is mounting pressure on the part of some people to remove the constraints and allow businesses to open up and people to circulate more freely. They are pushing for this even though most of them realize that doing so will most certainly significantly increase the number of deaths resulting from second or third waves of the virus. The argument propounded seems to be that the economic costs of prolonging the isolation and business shutdowns, outweighs the value of the human lives lost. I have even seen people actually state openly that it’s mostly the elderly that are dying and that they would soon have died of other causes anyway. They are willing to sacrifice the lives of an older generation so that they can return to the kind of lifestyle they were enjoying prior to the pandemic. The lives of the elderly have in effect become dispensable.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of thinking very disturbing. I was raised to believe that every life is sacred, and this is not just a religious tenet. It is embedded into most countries’ constitutions. The U.S. Declaration of Independence speaks of the “unalienable rights” of all men for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” No person’s life is more valuable or takes precedence over any other’s regardless of colour, creed, nationality or age. When anyone starts talking about it being necessary to trade anyone’s life for economic considerations, then we are witnessing the erosion of morality and the degradation of a society’s basic ethos.

There is no doubt that this pandemic has created a great deal of hardship for a lot of people. It is a crisis of global proportions, yet we must not lose sight of the fact that it will pass. The world has faced similar crises in decades and centuries past, from pandemics such as the Bubonic Plague and the Spanish Flu, to world wars that have killed millions and ravaged economies on a level far worse than what COVID will do. The world and our societies survived, recovered and eventually returned to levels of prosperity greater than what they had before.

We need to keep in mind that economies can recover but the dead cannot be brought back to life, at least not by our doing. What is important is that we retain our humanity and spirit of kindness, that we hold on to our moral and ethical beliefs, and that we place a higher priority on people’s lives and well-being, than on the pursuit of profit and materialistic well-being. Our decisions must be based first on the needs and well-being of the people, and not on the profitability of businesses. Keep in mind that businesses are artificial constructs, whereas people are very real.

That is not to say that we should ignore the health of our economies. The economic system is part of the structure that sustains our civilization. We must ensure that its viability is maintained. We should realize that this is not an either/or choice. We need to ensure that the economy is given due attention as well, but when push comes to shove, we should have no doubts in our mind that the lives and welfare of people comes first.