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Coming out of Coronavirus  



As restrictions drag on and the number of infections rises, more Australians are asking when lockdowns can cease. Federal politicians and business leaders have argued the case for a quick ending while claiming the authority of scientists. Science being science, the relevant questions have been tied to numbers. They have asked: how few cases should there be in the community before leaving lockdown? What percentage of the community must be vaccinated before the lifting of restrictions? What number of deaths should be tolerated for the gains of opening the economy? And when precisely should the opening of Australia take place?

In this drive towards opening Australia, reflective decision making risks being sidelined. It would insist that science can provide evidence for answering these questions, but cannot itself decide them. That rests with the community through its leaders. It would also insist that in answering the questions no simple and partial calculus will work. Answers must be based on respect for the needs of all people in the community, and especially the most vulnerable. Before Australia moves from lockdowns to an open community, too, it must ensure that the most vulnerable people will be protected. 

Scientists cannot decisively answer these questions about the end of lockdown because they necessarily rely on provisional and changing knowledge about the virus, its behaviour and effects, about the efficacy of measures taken against it, and about the likely behaviour of people as they remain in or are released from lockdown. Their advice will inevitably be modified as new evidence emerges, for example, of dramatically more contagious and lethal mutations, or of decreased effectiveness of vaccines.

More important, the decisions that people and their leaders must make are about values and only secondarily about numbers. A mixed group of scientists and cabinet members may accept the same numbers and the same projections about the consequences of lifting lockdowns, but come to different conclusions about whether it would be wise and right to do so. Their differences will arise out of different judgments about what is important in society, and ultimately about the basis of human value.

In the debate about responding to coronavirus human value is often defined in crude terms by comparing the value of one human life with another, or the value of one group of people with another. By comparing the value of people who are elderly with people who are young or in the workforce, for example, some would argue that we should neglect the lives of one group while focusing the life of others. In this kind of analysis the value of a human life is measured by economic criteria of cost and benefit.

This reasoning is crude because it focuses on one aspect of human reality, that of economic transactions or of age, and makes it decisive in all questions of policy. It ignores the complexity of the human relationships that compose a human life. It also devalues personal dignity, which is grounded in the conviction that each person is of unique value, and so cannot be used as a means to some one else’s end. Respect for human beings demands recognising that each person must be taken into account and that, because we depend on one another, we are also responsible to one another. From this it follows that it is impossible to compare the value of one human being with that of another. When reflecting on social policy, we must consider all the sets of relationships that compose fully human lives, of which economic relationships are only one of many.


'Respect for human beings demands recognising that each person must be taken into account and that, because we depend on one another, we are also responsible to one another.'


The challenge inherent in moving to live with the pandemic is to regard the human life and flourishing of all human beings as precious, and to act in a way that sees this flourishing of all, and especially of the most vulnerable, as the responsibility both of the community and of government.  No responsible policy may sacrifice the lives of one group in order to protect the life or goods of others.

Good policy will begin by reflecting on the risk to people’s lives and relationships posed both by the spread of the coronavirus and by the restrictions imposed in order to prevent it. Both entail considerable loss in terms of physical and mental health, personal and economic relationships and community services. Without planning and intervention the risk and cost will be fall most heavily on the most vulnerable people in society. In moving from a restricted to an open life the personal and social costs and benefits of the change to all groups in society must be weighed.

Because the transition is now seen to depend on the level of vaccination, the most vulnerable people will be those who are not vaccinated. They will be most at risk of being infected, becoming seriously ill, and of spreading infection. This suggests that the proportion of people fully vaccinated before opening the economy must be at the higher rather than lower level of estimation, and should be as high in vulnerable sections of the community as in the better resourced. Those particularly vulnerable both to the virus and to lack of vaccination are people who are aged, homeless, unemployed and casual workers particularly in rural areas, immigrants, and those confined in prisons, detention centres, nursing homes and other institutions. The nurses, officers, security, cleaning and cooking staff working in those institutions are also vulnerable, especially if they are forced to work in more than one casual job to support themselves.


'We should learn from the experience of many nations that have opened up prematurely only to be forced to lock down as numbers of infections and deaths rise and medical resources cannot cope.' 


Children will be particularly important. They are vulnerable by reason of age. They are also most likely to infect other children and their parents, and so to compromise efforts to keep infection out of institutions which house vulnerable adults. Because of the interlocking relationships in which all human lives are set, the different groups of vulnerable people cannot be totally isolated from one another. If children spread the virus through families, it will pass further through employment into institutions, and so on to hospitals and health staff, so posing severe pressures on health services to serve increasing demands from unvaccinated patients.

These things do not argue against loosening restrictions on movement, commerce and gathering. The effects of the restrictions on people’s health and livelihood make a powerful case for such loosening. But they do press for spending time and money on preparing for it. A higher rate of vaccinations in order to reduce the number of people vulnerable to acute illness and death, communication specifically at persuading people in vulnerable groups to be vaccinated, planning to provide accommodation promptly for all homeless people, strengthening stretched health systems, vaccinating for young children who otherwise will spread disease, and ensuring that people held in prisons, homes for the aged and other institutions do not merely avoid death but have a fully human and social life, are just some of the actions required.

Caring for these things is the stuff of good government. Trust in it is lacking. Indeed political comment on the haste to move out of constrictions suggests that it is controlled by the timetable for the coming federal election. That inference may be unfair but it underlines the need to resist haste in moving before due preparations are made. We should learn from the experience of many nations that have opened up prematurely only to be forced to lock down as numbers of infections and deaths rise and medical resources cannot cope. In their relationships with the virus neither partisan political imperatives nor public impatience enjoy sovereign power.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Woman walks confidently up stairs coming out from dark tunnel into bright light. (Germán Vogel/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Coronavirus, lockdown, restrictions, election, vaccination, Covid-19



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Existing comments

Great article Andy!
We have a duty of care to the more vulnerable in our community, refugees, prisoners, the elderly and even the misinformed minorities......

Stephen Moss | 02 September 2021  
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To Stephen's list we could add defenceless, unborn infants in their mothers'wombs. As Father Hamilton states "No responsible policy may sacrifice the lives of one group in order to protect the lives or goods of others." If we apply this principle to the pandemic issue, is it not just as relevant to abortion?

Grebo | 09 September 2021  

Andy, I sent this to my Premier this morning. As the virus rampages through NSW and Victoria, there's immense pressure on her to tow the new line. I hope she gains some comfort and fortitude from your deeply arresting ethical reflection.

Michael Furtado | 03 September 2021  

Dear Fr Hamilton. Would you be happy to accept the position as Minister of Home Affairs if I am able to arrange a benign dictatorship for this country?

john frawley | 03 September 2021  

As you point out these decisions need to take into account many facets of public policy. Sadly, economics seems to be the most important consideration when it seems obvious to me that people’s lives need to be at the centre of the discussion. I am keenly aware that the PM is caught in the currents and trying desperately to appease his supporters. I am always asking the question about his religious beliefs because he is open about their importance in his life. I think we are entitled to know the answer to this in the light of the terrible suffering many Australians are enduring at this time.

Jennifer Raper | 03 September 2021  

John Frawley I see you've sharpened your wit! However Home Affairs has long been a benign dictatorship in this country ever since the children overboard smokescreen was peddled as a political truth.

Francis Armstrong | 04 September 2021  
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Well said, Francois!

Michael Furtado | 20 September 2021  

Australia is in an interesting position with both strong climate science denialism and avoidance of any constraints by blaming immigrants and/or population growth; too easy when media parrot the same lines also entwined with strong libertarian economic influence.

However, the same science denialism or more likely, low science/data literacy, has also allowed Covid19 denialism while also allowing government to avoid planning or funding well, their societal and health responsibilities vs. their electoral focus upon the economy alone which is often short sighted....

Australia's chosen isolation through policy i.e. using borders as a 'wall' or existential threat

Andrew J. Smith | 04 September 2021  

Covid lockdowns are worse then the disease and affect the people who eureka street magaine advocates for. The left wing people likes lockdowns and it shows their hypocrisy.

Stuart Elliott Lawrence | 07 September 2021  

Stuart. There is no doubt that lockdown does have often serious effects on the world's most sophisticated of herding animals. As human beings we all need human interaction and community to sustain our humanity. However, lockdown and the perceived deprivation of "rights" it seemingly imposes on us rarely kill and rarely leave us with long term illness and disability. Covid, like the plague or smallpox or tuberculosis does, and there are hundreds of years of history which have advanced mankind medically in the elimination of such disease by isolation (lockdown and social distancing well recognised as long ago as biblical times with the isolation of those suffering from the highly transmittable leprosy, a variation of the tuberculosis bacterium) and over the last 200 years by vaccination/ immunisationn which in fact obliterates these diseases and has saved millions of lives. It's a matter of follow the advice or take the unnecessary risks with your own life and the lives of others. It has nothing to do with left or right wing politics. It is valid science. It is truth. It is not hypocrisy. It is also sad to see our fellow human beings becoming the victims of conspiracy theory to their own disadvantage. Stay home if you have to, wear a mask to protect yourself your loved ones and the general population and if you haven't yet done so, get vaccinated.

john frawley | 08 September 2021  

John Frawley, for your sensible advice from a real medical doctor, thank you. Some ES readers really needed to hear it and think seriously about their position. It is amazing what rubbish is believed in these times. Complete rubbish. I know one mature aged PhD candidate who refuses to come to a group we both belong to because he would have to wear a mask. This is on the grounds of 'civil liberty'. To me this is false logic. False logic can, in this instance, lead to disaster. In this regard I am reminded of Father Brown's words in 'The Resurrection of Father Brown', after he supposedly rose from the dead to the gullible onlookers. 'God bless you and give you more sense'. Thank you for doing a Father Brown here. It was sorely needed.

Edward Fido | 21 September 2021  

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