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Coming out of Coronavirus  

  • 02 September 2021
  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