Daniel Lucas points out a potential omission bias in the politics of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and outlines why it may be a threat to vulnerable groups and persons.
Recently, Maxwell Smith and Diego Silva argued on this platform that governmental action may fall prey to an omission bias, “whereby omissions are favored over commissions, especially when either might cause harm.” That is, authorities tend to abstain from action, even if the outcome of omission is worse or at least as bad as acting would have been. While the authors argue in the context of vaccine mandates, their argument offers an interesting point of view on other measures in the later stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the same line of argument, in a widely discussed article from June 2022, Kieran Oberman suggests that lockdowns may not just be an extra layer of freedom restrictions but actually allow more freedom. He argues that restrictions like lockdowns offer more freedom to a greater variety of people. Discussing several examples and theoretical backgrounds, he points out that commissions such as lockdowns restrict arbitrary power. In his example, it is the infectious who hold this arbitrary power, because being infectious alone means being a potential threat to others. That is what separates airborne diseases from others which rely on close contact, for example.
Oberman’s claim, while seemingly counterintuitive, may be translated into simpler terms: in the absence of governmental rules, infectious people have power over others, which is not morally appropriate. The state needs to restrict this arbitrary power to enable more people to act freely and self-responsibly. Most of us may agree that at this phase of the pandemic, with vaccines available and at least some immunity in the population, wide-reaching commissions such as lockdowns are not proportionate anymore. However other measures might still be reasonable. Even if we believe that, at this point, everybody is responsible for themselves if they want to avoid infection, we may still remember a principle that many philosophers and ethicists hold to be true: ought implies can.
The principle is straightforward: one can only be held responsible or blameworthy for something one can control. You can’t hold me responsible for the weather as I do not have any control over it. Furthermore, one can only be held responsible for their safety if the circumstances enable them to do so. And, in some situations, we need the help of others. And very often, we have codified rules or laws for that. A lot of our traffic rules are designed to keep each other safe. If a driver doesn’t stop at a red light, only crossing the street at a green light won’t help me. If drivers ignore speed limits, red lights, and pedestrian crossings, it would be outrageous to blame me for getting injured while crossing the street. Drivers need to be restricted for me to be responsible for my safety.
Rules promoting the safety of those still vulnerable to the virus are similar. For example, mask mandates and obligatory testing before visiting hospitals, care homes, and other medical institutions would make it more possible for those who are vulnerable to protect themselves and avoid infection. At the same time, those willing to take more risks could still go to pubs and parties.
This is not only a matter regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Many European and North American pediatric hospitals face severe problems in the ongoing RSV wave. As adults are often infectious but asymptomatic, mask mandates in schools, public transport, and shops may be a helpful measure to keep children safe. Instead of going back to a time before the pandemic, we could learn from it and ask authorities for the restrictions and mandates necessary to actually be responsible for our own health. This also means admitting that sometimes restrictions are necessary to make (more) freedom possible, and that it is often worse to omit than to act.
Daniel Lucas is a PhD-Candidate at ETH Zürich, Switzerland. @luc_phil_ger