The Bioethical Politics of The Coronavirus Pandemic: Part 2

Much has changed since March

In March when the shit hit the fan, I wrote an article entitled, “The Bioethical Politics of the Coronavirus Pandemic.” In it, I wrote that what was called for as a response to this pandemic was a Hobbsian-level lockdown — a ripping off of the bandaid of quarantining, so to speak. At the time, I truly believed that a total shutdown was warranted. And looking back, at that time, places like New York City which nearly went into a full lockdown did the right thing.

What about now, eight months later? What is abundantly clear is that things are clearly not the same as they were in March. Indeed, it is utterly astonishing just how much things have changed. If these eight months have proven one thing, they have proven that there is nothing which will stand in the way of how divided we are; there is nothing which will stand in the way of how politicized we are; there is nothing which will stand in the way of simply how little most of us care about evidence and how most of us will blindly follow non-sense.

Just these phrases alone might pin me down on either side of the political spectrum here. “What?! He says most of us will follow non-sense?! Is he a COVID denier? Does he really think this election was fair and real?!” But this is precisely what illuminates my point: our epistemology is one of reactivity instead of one that deliberates and deeply considers reality as it actually is.

None of the following is partisan. Indeed, insofar as my remarks are political, they are informed by empirical data, moral philosophy and science, rather than the other way about. In fact, I hope more than any thing that such a way of thinking about politics — and the issues which politics (for better or for worse) handles — is something that readers of this article walk away with. Do not let party lines dicate what you think. Let whatever is the fact of the matter inform what you think. This is the mark of enlightenment, according to Kant, and I believe that Kant is quite right.

The question of main concern here is lockdowns. On the left, lockdowns are a priority and on the right, they are a form of tyranny. If you care too much about COVID, you do not care about the economy, and if you care too much about the economy, you do not care about COVID. Hopefully, my not-so-caricature illustration of common opinions here embellishes them with their idiocy. If not, then again, such aloofness is part of the problem.

Can we not see that we ought to care about both COVID and the economy? Is it truly a black and white issue? The rhetoric in my questioning here should signify that it indeed is no black and white issue — it is as grey as weeks-old snow in New York City.

Should we shut down? Let's just stick to the example of New York for a moment. From a purely COVID-prevention standpoint, I stick by my original article: we ought to have full lockdowns. My naivety in my first article, however, was the presumption that the resolution to the pandemic should only take purely COVID-prevention measures. Economics played almost no role in my opinions at that time.

And at the time, that might have actually been the appropriate way of thinking about things. Speaking from the standpoint of living in the epicenter of this pandemic, New York City, a lot of people were dying every day back in April. We did not have the tools to treat COVID and our facilities in which we held the worst cases were overcrowded and nearing capacity.

Data from the New York Times

This, however, is simply not the case anymore. While COVID cases are on the rise again here in New York, COVID deaths have been stable since June. Currently, New York has the same number of COVID cases as it did back in May — roughly speaking, 5000 new cases a day. Back in May, the death rate was anywhere from 200–300 deaths per day. Now in November — with the same amount of cases there were back in May — the death rate is on average 30 deaths a day. It is difficult to say at the moment whether or not death rates are going to rise back up to the levels they were at in May. The odds are, however, that they will not: treatment for severe cases of the coronavirus is much more sophisticated now than it was back in May; an effective vaccine could be rolled out in a matter of weeks; and in general, there is no statistical indication that the death rate is going to rise anywhere near as bad as it did back in April and May. Given this, it seems quite preliminary to impose shut-downs again in New York.

Now, no deaths are acceptable. Socially distancing and wearing masks clearly help prevent the spread of this virus. But does this death rate really warrant closing things down again? Well, in the absence of any financial aid from the federal government, no, I cannot conceive of it being warranted. If the state would like to close things down again to prevent the spread of COVID, the only ethical way of doing so is to provide financial support for individuals — especially those who are out of work or who have lost hours — and for businesses. Simply shutting things down — especially in New York City — has been shown to entail quite terrifying projections economically. I suppose I am considering this more of a problem now than it was back in April because back in April there was at least some form of financial aid for workers. The extra $600 a week on unemployment checks certainly helped lots of people. But many people still haven’t found work, and many might not find work again for months, or even years. What sort of support will they get? Clearly, it is a moral imperative for the government to provide such support, but it is improbable that they will. The majority of the budget of the first stimulus package went to major corporations, and it seems likely that something similar will happen if another stimulus is passed.

“But shouldn’t we put lives over money?” This is something I often hear as a rebuttal to being tentative about shutdowns. The answer, of course, is yes, but it is a question that misses a big point — one which is impossible to make from a conservative or libertarian perspective: our society is set up in a way that makes it so finances determine your livelihood. If you are out of work in the United States or your business goes under, without any aid, your livelihood will be shattered. I do not things should be this way — which is my point of departure with conservatives and libertarians. Will things in the U.S. change? Probably not. Insofar as market culture pervades the structures of our economy and ways of being, simply shutting things down will not work well in terms of making “lives” our moral priority.

Hence, I am not here taking a stance as conservatives do: I am not saying, “don’t shut down because that infringes upon my freedom,” where, it simply ends with that pseudo-maxim. Rather, what I am saying is that “if you do decide to shut down, doing so without any aid is a profound moral mistake.” Indeed, this is what people like Andrew Yang have been speaking about for quite some time. We are getting to a point in our society where a universal basic income of some sort is becoming more and more necessary.

We are already seeing the consequences of this. For instance, from a personal standpoint, I’ve lost work from this outbreak — I am lucky enough to have multiple sources of income, however, which most people do not. When COVID first hit in New York City in March and worsened throughout April, a profound amount of jobs were lost. And even now, roughly 1.2–1.3 million New York City residents remain unemployed and as of early September, 2.6 million New York State residents were receiving unemployment benefits. Of the jobs lost, only 29% were regained. Is it really wise to close the economy again under such circumstances? About 1/3 of restaurants face permanent closure and the odds of this worsening will grow exponentially with a second shut-down.

Returning back to the topic of acting reflexively rather than on the data, what has struck me is simply how arbitrary many of the COVID restrictions are. For instance, talks of closing indoor dining and gyms seem to be based purely upon assumption. The only data being touted is cellphone data, which simply shows that people who are superspreaders just so happen to have also attended restaurants and gyms.

From a scientifically-epistemological standpoint, there are simply better data that proves the opposite. Let's take the example of gyms: the science has proven that, insofar as people practice good personal hygiene and keep a safe distance from one another, gyms really are not a significant source of spreading COVID-19; indeed, they seem to be one of the public places where COVID is least likely to be spread. In a study with 1500 participants who went to the gym regularly, did not wear masks [not advising this], practiced good personal hygiene, and kept a safe distance from one another, only one participant tested positive for COVID-19; the source of this participant’s positive test being their workplace.

And yet, gym closures are considered one of the first to go in a lockdown scenario. I presume this is because gyms seem like the sort of place for a virus to spread; yet, the data suggests otherwise. Indeed, the data suggests that gym-goers are much less likely to catch the virus — exercises intrinsically has a positive immune response — and if they do catch the virus, they are much less likely to develop a bad case of the virus. Preventing individuals from exercise will make them more vulnerable to catching the virus — as, they will be more likely to lose their exercise-induced positive immune response. It is quite pointless to close gyms based on the data.

What about restaurants/bars? Schools? Workspaces, like offices? All of these seem to be the worst offenders in terms of spreading the virus. And yet, governments are extremely reluctant to close down these public areas. For instance, it is quite likely that within the next two weeks, New York City will shut down indoor dining. However, what fits the criteria of “outdoor dining” is quite bizarre: indoor tents, in which one can be maskless, are considered “outdoor dining” in New York City.

Despite this, I still think that it would be an insane slip of judgment to close down schools, restaurants, and workspaces without federal aid. If we are going to close things back down, we must wait until Biden takes office, as it is extremely unlikely that any sort of stimulus will be distributed until then. Lockdowns are not something I am against: lockdowns with no federal financial aid, however, is something I am extremely against — it is a moral imperative in a society in which finances determine a fair bit of one’s well-being supplement the finances of those who have lost their income for no fault of their own.

Hence, my Hobbesian view from back in March has slowly but surely shifted over to somewhat of a social democratic view. On the one hand, we need to ensure that people do not spread the virus; on the other hand, we need to aid the economic impact of the inevitable spread of the virus. One without the other is non-sensical. And yet, that is precisely what we are doing — this is unsurprising; it is all too human and all too reliable in its occurrence. And so too with the arbitrary restrictions or lack thereof.

Philosophy MA Student @ The CUNY Graduate Center

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