The Covid-19 pandemic has been wreaking death and havoc around the world for almost half a year, and yet the global infection rate shows no sign of slowing. In some cases, countries have gone through several cycles of lockdowns and economic reboots as they seek to contain the virus while avoiding catastrophic economic damage. 

A hard lockdown is certainly the most popular management strategy among public health experts. Yet serious questions remain about how to effectively, and ethically, contain the virus while also protecting the economic and social interests of the general population. Unfortunately, commentators around the world continue to use simplistic and often inflammatory moral language when arguing in favour of their preferred management strategy.

Monday night’s edition of the Australian current affairs show Q&A provided a window into the continuing debate — and the ham-fisted way in which experts frame basic questions of moral value.

University of New South Wales economist Gigi Foster – one of five panelists on the show – came under fire for talking about “body counts” as she championed Sweden’s relaxed response to the coronavirus pandemic as a model for Australia to follow.

“I think that Australia can follow in the footsteps of many other countries in the world,” Professor Foster said. “If you look at what’s happening to those death counts around the world, in every country that has had a proper first wave, [the death rate is] somewhere between 0.05 percent and 0.1 percent of the population…That translates in Australia to about 12,000 to 25,000 deaths for people who are predominantly elderly or immunocompromised. But it’s a body count.”

The shortcomings of the Swedish model notwithstanding, Professor Foster’s imagery of “death counts” and “body counts” recasts pandemic management as a ruthless form of modern warfare — as if the lives of vulnerable members of society were just collateral in the fight to defeat coronavirus.

Viewed from another perspective, it seems to betray a viewpoint in which the loss of human life is just another economic consideration, rather than having a special moral significance. Indeed, one of the ugly realisations of the pandemic has been that so-called ageism and ableism are not just left-wing slogans; rather, they are pervasive biases that distort the way that many people think about the relative badness of death.

That being said, Q&A host Hamish Macdonald’s rejoinder was also morally simplistic. “So, why are you advocating for them to die?” he asked Foster. Foster was not advocating for anybody to die. Rather, the argument of lockdown sceptics is that we should explore strategies to minimise deaths while not discounting other morally relevant considerations, including employment, quality of life and mental health. We should, in other words, avoid a single-minded preoccupation with saving lives irrespective of the devastating cost that this might have.

Don’t get me wrong – I am a supporter of the Australian National Cabinet’s balanced approach to managing the Covid-19 pandemic. But by the same token, I don’t think it’s helpful to characterise alternative strategies as, let’s face it, a form of population-level manslaughter.

The practice of moral mudslinging is certainly not confined to the Australian political arena. Similar language has been utilised by leading American political commentators. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman – a Nobel laureate in economics – uses the most inflammatory language imaginable in a recent column about the Republicans handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s a sample of Krugman’s moralistic assessment of the decision by Republican-controlled states to open their economies earlier rather than later:

“So what was going on? Were our leaders just stupid? Well, maybe. But there’s a deeper explanation of the profoundly self-destructive behavior of Trump and his allies: They were all members of America’s cult of selfishness. You see, the modern U.S. right is committed to the proposition that greed is good, that we’re all better off when individuals engage in the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest. In their vision, unrestricted profit maximisation by businesses and unregulated consumer choice is the recipe for a good society.”

Krugman continues: “…Rational policy in a pandemic, however, is all about taking responsibility. The main reason you shouldn’t go to a bar and should wear a mask isn’t self-protection, although that’s part of it; the point is that congregating in noisy, crowded spaces or exhaling droplets into shared air puts others at risk. And that’s the kind of thing America’s right just hates, hates to hear.”

There’s a lot going on in Krugman’s rhetoric, but suffice it to say that his core claims — “the modern US right is committed to the proposition that greed is good”, for example — are laughably simplistic. You might expect this sort of risible caricature from a left-wing political hack. Yet Krugman is supposed to be one of the world’s leading economic theorists.

Rather than making a constructive contribution to the debate, Krugman seems more interested in peddling simplistic economic myths to win cheap political points. Pandemic management raises complex ethical questions, and the situation we find ourselves in is perhaps best described as a moral dilemma — a choice between avoidable deaths and devastating economic and social damage.

In light of this, we need a subtle moral vocabulary to properly evaluate competing Covid-19 management strategies. Some commentators suffer from a lack of moral sensitivity, while others are downright sanctimonious and moralistic in their analysis. Both of these extremes will prevent us from identifying effective and ethical approaches to weathering the storm of Covid-19.

Xavier Symons

Xavier Symons is a bioethicist at the University of Notre Dame and a 2020 Fulbright Future Postdoctoral Scholar.