The Anscombe Bioethics Centre have commissioned, and published on their website, a series of COVID-19 briefing papers. One of these papers addresses the ethics of imposed lockdowns to control the spread of the pandemic virus in different places. Written in mid-June 2020, it is able to draw on the experience of lockdowns in different parts of the world. It is able to discuss the part that has been played by lockdowns in relation to other steps aimed at keeping the spread of the pandemic under control, and the necessity of moving to a lockdown if those steps are not able to limit community spread.
The headings of the first three substantive sections of the paper are: "The Science of Pandemics", "The Logic of Pandemic Lockdowns" and "The Efficacy of Pandemic Lockdowns". These sections are clear that the virus responsible for COVID-19 represents a real and serious threat to the health of populations and to the well being of their communities. These sections provide properly academic analysis of the experience of different nations with respect to the implementation - or otherwise - of lockdowns. They are worth reading fully to provide a proper balance to coverage in the news media.
Before identifying the ethical principles that would underpin an evaluation of lockdowns, the fourth section, entitled "The Ethics of Pandemic Lockdowns", begins:
As we discussed above, lockdowns are the most potent weapon that public health officials can deploy to prevent or to limit a viral wildfire. They are used to bring an uncontrolled pandemic into control. From a public health perspective, this would ensure not only the health and well-being of a community but also the integrity and functioning of its healthcare system. However, a lockdown also has profound and often devastating impacts on the community’s economic and financial well-being. In April 2020, because of the Global Lockdown, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that global growth in this year of pandemic would fall to -3%. This is a downgrade of 6.3 percentage points from January 2020.
Three ethical principles are then identified. The first is that there should be no differentiation in the duty of care between different members of society. Human dignity, and the regard for that dignity, attaches to each and every person regardless of their particular circumstances of physical health or social standing:
As a community, we have to try to protect them equally well during a pandemic even though we may not be able to protect everyone equally well.
The second is a call to favour and protect the poor and the vulnerable:
Recalling the story of the Last Judgement (Mt. 25:31-46), we are called to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. This is especially important to remember during this pandemic because it is the poor who are bearing the brunt of the loss of health and the loss of wealth caused by COVID-19.
The third principle is that of protecting and preserving the common good of our communities:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the common good as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.’ Within the commonweal, the government is given the authority to care for the common good. This is its primary responsibility.
Pandemic lockdowns only make sense, from an ethical point of view, in their ability to protect and preserve the common good by reducing viral spread and, in particular, viral spread in the community.
Lockdowns are ethically justifiable precisely because they protect both the individual good, especially the individual good of the poor and the vulnerable, and the common good. They ensure not only the health and well-being of a community but also the integrity and functioning of its healthcare system.
The responsibility of government for the common good is what allows them to establish regulations with regard to the conduct of their lives during the pandemic that oblige the population of their country. The citizen in their turn has an obligation to engage, as a subject of their own action, in favour of the common good and therefore in compliance with established regulations. Government is entitled, for example, to make self-isolation mandatory when a person is identified as a "contact" or tests positive for COVID-19. But the common good in its economic dimension also needs to be considered in determining the exact provisions of a lockdown.
As we move forward, public health authorities should do what they can to avoid another global lockdown. The pandemic experience in several countries and locales including South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, show us how to do this: By building a robust testing, tracking, and tracing capacity that can identify clusters of infections and break chains of viral transmission before they trigger community spread and exponential growth of the pandemic.
I would recommend Rev. Austriaco's briefing paper, particularly to those who are tempted by the inclination of some towards virus-sceptic or lockdown-sceptic positions.