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