Was lockdown racist?

Delighted to be giving a new talk this week in Cambridge and Utrecht.

Tuesday 17 May, 2.30pm BST: Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, Newnham College

Friday 20 May, 16.15 CET: Conference, Covid-19 and Public Policy, Utrecht University

Abstract

In 2016, South African learner Zulaikha Patel argued that a school rule requiring hair to be neat was racist. Even though the rule applied equally to everyone, public opinion swung behind Patel: a rule that imposed a disproportionate burden on Black learners could be racist even if it applied equally to all. The school suspended the rule. Basing itself on this case, this paper argues that global lockdowns in the first half of 2020 were racist. The paper focuses on Africa, arguing first that the lockdown strategy of implementing stringent stay-at-home regulations was externally imposed upon Africa, tracing the origins of this policy to the way that modelling results were presented so as to make just one option feasible. The resulting recommendations were promulgated globally by the World Health Organisation, and geopolitical power relations placed huge pressures on African states to comply. Next, the paper argues that locking down placed a disproportionate burden on Africa, whose population is the poorest in the world and for whom no work often means no food. At the same time, the potential benefit of the policy was small. With a median age of 19.7, much of the population was just too young for Covid ever to be a serious public health problem, and by the same token other threats to life compete for attention. Slum-dwellers cannot reduce their social contact by 75%, which is the figure used in the model upon which the recommendations were based. Most states in the region are unable to afford or implement meaningful food or grant schemes to compensate. Many African countries have no ventilators and low access to health care, so protecting the healthcare system was not a meaningful goal. And the strategy of locking down until a vaccine was available could never have been credible in a region where millions of children die annually from diseases treatable by penicillin. Where a policy originates in Europe and has disproportionate negative effect in Africa, it is impossible to ignore racial dynamics. “Black” is a colonial vestige that does not do justice to the ethnic diversity in Africa. Yet it can be legitimately used as Patel used it: for purpose of internal critique, and as an adjunct identity that does not negate other identities. Lockdown had a disproportionate negative effect on a very large number of Black people, and it was externally imposed. Therefore lockdown was racist.

Taking life from the poor to give to the rich?

I’ve given this talk in various places, most recently Durham University (where I’m a Professor of Philosophy of Science). I’m now giving it at the University of Johannesburg (where I’m a Visiting Professor) for the first time, which is great for me because it’s here that I first had the ideas. The event is both in person and online. Details below. It’s a co-hosted event between Durham’s Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society, and UJ’s Philosophy Department, supported by the UJ Library and Faculty of Humanities.

Can robots do epidemiology? Preprint available

Delighted that Philosophy and Technology has accepted a paper by Thomas Grote and I on the relationship between machine learning, epidemiology, public health, causal inference, prediction, interventions, and all the other things we could squeeze into one paper. No “salami slicing” of papers for us. Here’s a preprint.

An egalitarian evaluation of lockdown

I’ve started a new job and in the process not posted anything here for months, nor done a whole lot worth sharing. Now I’m dusting off my “lockdown talk” and updating it, with a view to writing it up soon. It’s now called “An egalitarian evaluation of lockdown” and I feel like it’s matured quite a bit. I also now have the benefit of being able to talk about the global vaccination mess as something totally foreseeable, which matters because awaiting a vaccine is an integral part of the strategy I criticise. Here’s the abstract:

“Lockdown” has come to designate a cluster of non-pharmaceutical interventions intended to slow or stop Covid-19. One familiar line of objection to lockdowns is libertarian: lockdowns restrict freedom of movement, association, and so forth. However, the appeal of libertarian arguments is limited to (a) moral contexts globally where individual liberty rights are a primary dimension of policy evaluation and (b) audiences that see such rights as outweighed by the dangers of Covid. Among the latter are some motivated by egalitarian considerations, who claim that Covid hits poorer people including “minorities” harder than richer people. This paper contends that there is a neglected but extremely powerful egalitarian argument against lockdown, based on the fact that most poor people live outside rich countries in circumstances where lockdowns offer no protection, where the risk posed by Covid 19 is lower both absolutely (due to demographics) and relative to other risks to life (due to these being greater), and that lockdowns greatly exacerbate these risks. This includes racial and other majorities who are routinely referred to as “minorities” by authors in rich countries. The paper argues that neglect of these facts is an instance of epistemic injustice, the victims of which are predominately so-called “persons of colour”. The paper argues further that the unfair features of lockdown are not coincidental, but that it was these very features that led to their endorsement by powerful groups, nations and international bodies, and to the persistent positive attitude to lockdowns. From an egalitarian standpoint, their actions can be interpreted as using the commanding heights of the global knowledge economy, not to reduce the global burden of Covid overall, but to transfer as much of the burden of Covid as possible from the global rich to the global poor.

“Lockdown” has come to designate a cluster of non-pharmaceutical interventions intended to slow or stop Covid-19. One familiar line of objection to lockdowns is libertarian: lockdowns restrict freedom of movement, association, and so forth. However, the appeal of libertarian arguments is limited to (a) moral contexts globally where individual liberty rights are a primary dimension of policy evaluation and (b) audiences that see such rights as outweighed by the dangers of Covid. Among the latter are some motivated by egalitarian considerations, who claim that Covid hits poorer people including “minorities” harder than richer people. This paper contends that there is a neglected but extremely powerful egalitarian argument against lockdown, based on the fact that most poor people live outside rich countries in circumstances where lockdowns offer no protection, where the risk posed by Covid 19 is lower both absolutely (due to demographics) and relative to other risks to life (due to these being greater), and that lockdowns greatly exacerbate these risks. This includes racial and other majorities who are routinely referred to as “minorities” by authors in rich countries. The paper argues that neglect of these facts is an instance of epistemic injustice, the victims of which are predominately so-called “persons of colour”. The paper argues further that the unfair features of lockdown are not coincidental, but that it was these very features that led to their endorsement by powerful groups, nations and international bodies, and to the persistent positive attitude to lockdowns. From an egalitarian standpoint, their actions can be interpreted as using the commanding heights of the global knowledge economy, not to reduce the global burden of Covid overall, but to transfer as much of the burden of Covid as possible from the global rich to the global poor.

It’s bound to be a controversial line of argument in one way, because it’s drawing a normative moral conclusion that’s pretty far-reaching. But in another way, I hope that it might prove more appealing to people who are fed up with “lockdown scepticism” based on libertarian arguments that they just don’t accept (as well as showing “lockdown sceptics” that they might have other intellectual avenues to pursue). It breaks with the familiar left/right and public health/libertarian dialectics, which I regard as rather North/West focused, and as missing an important set of points and contexts. Hopefully many can agree about at least the need for an evaluation that is both global and focused on equality, even some who reject my own evaluation.

I’ll be delivering the talk at a conference hosted by the University of Macau titled ‘The Moral Roots of Lockdown: East Meets West.’ The programme looks really interesting (setting aside my own contribution). See below. Email the organisers for a zoom link: mrqconference@gmail.com

I think Sweden handled this pandemic better than any other country. Here’s Anders Tegnell explaining the Swedish stance, again: https://unherd.com/2020/07/swedens-anders-tegnell-judge-me-in-a-year/

If I guess the time, and get it right, do I know the time? No, says common sense, and nearly all theoretical and formal epistemology. If I guess that it will rain tomorrow, am I any better off? Presumably not. Yet we assess predictions almost entirely by whether they are right.

I do think Swedish predictive work was broadly accurate, compared to, for example, the models produced by Imperial College London. But more importantly, I think their stance was rational. They did what was right given the evidence. That isn’t the same as being right in the sense of landing on the truth. But there’s nothing either epistemically or morally significant about the latter. The former, however, is both. Sweden behaved more reasonably than any other country, or perhaps at least as reasonably as the most reasonable, given that there was room for reasonable disagreement.

The stance on Sweden is another version of the intellectual intolerance of the age. And it ignores the evidence. Sweden has done well: not perfectly, but no country has, that I can think of. Whether it comes out tops long-term is up in the air. But there is good reason to think it will – at least as good as the reasons to think it won’t.

eNCA TV interview – COVID-19 in South Africa, readiness (lack of), lockdown making zero difference, and the need to ask people what will work for them https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=No67yxuNrzU @mediauj #epitwitter @enca

ENCA interview – COVID progress in SA, comments on readiness and regulations

Soon I’ll have an opinion piece out arguing several of these points. In particular, regulation is just the wrong idea in the first place: people need to be consulted. And that’s not a watery option, it’s the way to get effective solutions that are context-specific.

From Judea Pearl’s blog: report of a webinar: “Artificial Intelligence and COVID-19: A wake-up call” #epitwitter @TheBJPS

Check the entry on Pearl’s blog which includes a write-up provided by the organisers

Video of the event is available too

Benjamin Smart in the Independent: ‘Parents shouldn’t fear COVID-19’ https://www.iol.co.za/sundayindependent/dispatch/parents-shouldnt-fear-covid-19-48455400 @bthsmart

https://www.iol.co.za/sundayindependent/dispatch/parents-shouldnt-fear-covid-19-48455400

This is from last week but I don’t recall sharing it. A concise account of why people should not worry about school reopening. It is written for SA but applies also to the U.K. where timing is similar, as are the fears, including among people who consider themselves educated.

SA government being taken to court over lockdown

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2020-05-14-da-and-ff-to-challenge-lockdown-constitutionality/

Steenhuisen (leader of the Opposition): “The state of disaster we are currently under, governed by the Disaster Management Act, has zero provision for parliamentary oversight. Which means this secretive NCC answers to no-one. Not even a state of emergency, which is a further step up from a state of disaster, has such sweeping powers with no parliamentary oversight.”

Tracing apps are untested medical interventions , says The Economist

https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/05/16/dont-rely-on-contact-tracing-apps

The Economist argues that hopes should not be pinned in tracing apps which might not work. Medicine is littered with medical interventions that failed, sometimes harmfully. What is different?

One difference is that this is not a biomedical intervention. However, public health is also littered with ineffective or harmful interventions with dangerous consequences (perhaps the effects of lockdown on mass migration being a case in point). It is interesting that governments should consider giving this potential solution a free pass, so to speak, without testing or an evidence base – perhaps because it hs a technological flavor?