The choice is ours – how opening up will turn us into moralists of daily life | Sridhar Venkatapuram

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So the prime minister says that with the removal of Covid restrictions we will now be able to make our own “informed decisions” about what we will and will not do. Generally, we might feel it’s a sign of a good government and a good society that it allows and enables its members to make their own informed decisions about how they want to live their lives. But it’s hard to rejoice at the removal of most Covid restrictions with the current dramatic rise in new infections. When more than 100 experts have signed an open letter in the Lancet calling the full easing of restrictions “dangerous and premature”, it can feel less like relief and freedom, and more like we’re being released into a wild unknown – and one that comes with ever-increasing ethical burdens on us as individuals.

For in this new chapter, we need to recognise that the transfer of decision-making powers from government to us is not just about practical decisions but also about important ethical ones. We’ll make decisions about what we choose to do as we continue to spread a harmful new disease to one another causing various kinds of harms. And the risk of dangerous variants increases with each new infection. Let’s not forget that the Alpha variant was created in the UK and quickly spread around the world. So the possibility of us creating new variants also has global implications.

One kind of ethical decision is how to balance risks and benefits. Many people, from those marching in anti-lockdown demonstrations to Lord Sumption, a former supreme court justice, have been decrying the unjustness of Covid restrictions. A generous understanding of this view is that the costs in terms of loss of personal liberties as well as curtailment of so much social life, including economic activity, to lower the risk of infections are far greater than the benefits in terms of lives saved. Perhaps an extreme reading of the view would be that personal freedoms are so ethically important that nothing, no gain, is worth infringing on those freedoms.

While critics of the lockdowns respond to national policies, individuals can and will instinctively apply a similar kind of reasoning in thinking about how to go about their day in the new reality. On an hourly basis, we have the gift, or burden, of balancing risks and benefits with respect to ourselves, our household and beyond. Are the thousands of people who are deleting the NHS contact tracing app ahead of 19 July clearly showing that they value doing whatever they want – their freedoms – more than the potential harms to themselves or others from their actions, not to mention the social resources that may be affected? Or perhaps they don’t trust in its accuracy?

Another way to think about the ethics of our decisions is to recall the early part of lockdowns last year. The phrase “we are all in this together” reflected the idea that we are all vulnerable, and all of us must cooperate to contain the threat and minimise harm. Laws and regulations imposed restrictions to ensure that everyone fell into line. But how key were they? Perhaps many people would have adjusted their behaviour in order to protect themselves and one another with just a strong request from the relevant authorities. While we value personal freedoms, we also value staying alive, good health and the wellbeing of others.

Consider behaviour change during the peak of the HIV/Aids pandemic. No government made it illegal to have sex without a condom. Gay men, in particular, made condom use the norm. This was useful in enabling sex, one of the pleasures of a good life, and worked as a mark of mutual respect for each other’s wellbeing.

Such sexual ethics not only helped contain HIV infections; they were also the foundation for social cohesion and allowed progress towards greater social equality. Protecting one another from preventable death and suffering can lead to personal and social transformations – in letting somebody see that his or her life is as valuable as your own, we ground our belief in equality of rights and opportunities. The parallels between the instrumental use and ethical dimensions of a condom and a face mask are not hard to see.

However, it would be a mistake to think that changing the ethical norms of how we relate to one another is easy. As people become emboldened to do what they want, there will undoubtedly be greater interpersonal conflicts, as one person feels that their health is being put at risk by another’s activities.

In the face of unknown dangers, people may withdraw from social interactions. They will be less willing to go out or use public facilities if social distancing and masks are no longer obligatory. Then there is the burden of shame for doing the wrong thing. That is, shame for not protecting oneself better or for being identified as causing the illness in others. People will become more reserved in speaking with neighbours and social networks for fear of revealing too much of the “risky behaviours”, with the social censure that follows.

Without laws and regulations coordinating people’s behaviours, how effective we’ll be in protecting ourselves and others will depend, yes, on the ever-changing dynamics of the virus but also on the ethical values we express in dealing with one another.

Let’s remember this pandemic spreads through human interaction and the extent of the spread tracks not only government aptitude but also the nature of our relationships.

Do we want our social ethics to support personal freedoms, no matter the cost to ourselves and others. Or do they support mutual respect, care and concern? We can come out of this pandemic stronger as individuals who take more control of our own health; we can also do justice to those who have died by building a fairer society. To achieve both, perhaps more than ever it’s wise to act like we are all in this together.

Dr Sridhar Venkatapuram is a senior lecturer in Global Health and Philosophy, King’s College, London

Dr Sridhar Venkatapuram is a senior lecturer in Global Health and Philosophy, King’s College, London

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