Should I go to the supermarket never used to be such a difficult question. The government guidelines on social distancing allow it, but they also say to minimise the number of trips. Could I get by with what I have at home to save a trip outside, or is another trip acceptable given that, in general, food is deemed ‘essential’? What about a walk in the park with a friend? Certainly not allowed by the guidelines, but what if we keep two meters apart? Is that really worse than being forced to brush shoulders in a supermarket? The Government seems to think so, but it is hard to say. Exercise on your own in the park is allowed, but not sunbathing. Is the later really more risky?
We are over three weeks into the profound changes to our way of life the response to this pandemic has brought about. The gravity of those changes, and the reality that they could, in some form, be around for quite some time has now dawned on most of us. They could persist for many months or even longer — a vaccine could take two years or more. All this remains clouded in agonising uncertainty.
As we navigate this new reality, we will also be asking ourselves daily not just what activities are allowed by the rules, but also which are morally permissible. These aren’t abstract dilemmas. Spreading the disease at an individual level will cost lives. Unless we suffer the tragedy of giving it to someone we know it is likely we will not see the results ourselves, but it is the unavoidable truth.
If much of social media is to be believed, it is more black and white, than I am suggesting. Twitter in particular has erupted with angry exclamations at examples of people who are not adequately ‘social distancing’. Pictures of the crowded Columbia Road Flower Market last month were at the epicentre of an angry storm. More recently debate raged about sunbathers in Brockwell Park: Lambeth Council closed it for a day on Sunday.
Commentators are quick to pass judgment and signal virtue. They are perhaps too unforgiving of people trying to make sense of what is, or is not, permissible. Equally if you have a private garden, perhaps you should pause before you throw scorn at those confined to a tower block apartment with no outdoor space.
The guidance from the Government has at least got clearer. At first, those who were not vulnerable were only ‘advised’ to avoid pubs and restaurants. (The vulnerable were ‘strongly advised’). People would have been forgiven for wondering whether than meant to try to go a bit less, or not at all. Now we have clearer guidelines and clear closure of ‘non-essential’ services. We can only go out for the sacred three reasons — shopping for food or medicine, work if you really cannot from home and exercise once a day.
Making every effort to follow the advice strictly is the simplest and best thing to do. It is probably better, for sanity’s sake, not to get to much into the moral weeds of it all. If we do, we quickly come to wonder what our imperative really is. Is it just we have a duty to do what the Government has told us? So supermarkets are fine, but sitting in the park is a frivolous indulgence? Perhaps this is about paying our penance and not asking questions. Few of them will say it, but many virtue signallers appear to feel this way.
Alternatively, should we see this consequentially? From an epidemiological perspective the purpose is the reduce to a minimum the probability of spreading the disease. Sunbathing with adequate space is surely fine on this logic, maybe even that two-meters-apart walk with a friend. Or one could follow the logic the other way. If decreasing our chances of spreading the disease saves lives, maybe we should eliminate any possibly of aaccidentall encounter and forgo outside exercise altogether. If so, joggers should get as much ire from the Twitterati as sunbathers.
Whichever way you see it, we are having to consider impossible balances. How do you weigh up the cost of strict adherence to government rules on our mental, physical and financial wellbeing against a probability, which we don’ t know, that we will spread the virus? This is perhaps one reason that the Government has made so many of the decisions for us by closing non-essential services.
The moral weeds of all this go deeper however, particularly when ‘what-about-isum’ (also evident on Twitter) is considered. Take for example flu, a deadly disease but an unhelpful comparison as its danger is dismissed by many. One would assume a happy side effect of all this will likely be that a smaller number of people die of that disease this year. That number sadly averages 17,000. Projections for Covid-19 are as high as half a million if we were to do nothing. We are rightly making huge scarifies to save those people. Yet we don’t do the same every flu season. Why are those 17,000 lives not worth social distancing for? We are dangerously close to answering the question: ‘how much is one life worth?’. Or take smoking. Every year in the UK 80,000 people die of ‘smoking related deaths’. We are willing to tell vulnerable older people to self-isolate to avoid Covid-19, but we are not willing to ban smoking.
The truth is this discussion is somewhat divorced from the real life decisions policy makers are taking. The profound measures brought in are not only due to the terrifying scale of potential death, they are also due to the fact that unchecked the pandemic will overwhelm our health system — in particular the number of Intensive Care Unit beds.
Our society is premised on the fact that while we may take small risks all the time, every time we get in the car for example, we fall back on the fact that our health system will do all it can to give us the best chance of recovery. If overwhelmed due to Covid-19 this would cease to be. There are already sobering stories of at risk patients being told they cannot be promised an ICU bed should they get the virus. Unchecked the pandemic undermines our way of life as well as taking away individual lives.
This perhaps the clearest reason we are now, and were not before, agonising about that extra trip to the supermarket. The moral conflicts of life in a pandemic are not things most people will ever have thought about. We all are now.