I recently participated in a panel discussion on this topic. There was not enough time for me to present everything I wanted to. This is meant to provide fuller discussion.
There are dangers and potential good outcomes as we get through COVID.
One relates to the uses of technology. We have been offered tracking devices for our phones, (Canada) on which we are to provide information if we know we have contracted the virus. Assuming that we put this information on our phone app, and have it on when out and about, others with similar apps can be alerted to the fact, so they will know that they might have contracted the disease, too. Although this is used by relatively few people, the concept is good because it provides at least one way of knowing the status of those with whom we come into close range for fifteen minutes (this was before the Delta variant which can be spread much more quickly). The app can be turned off, and so is not tracked all the time.
The danger of course is that, for all we know, we can be under surveillance without knowing it. We are assured not, and our government privacy commissioners have approved these things. Such apps aside, apparently merely having the phone on or off can also expose us to surveillance, so perhaps this is not an additional problem. But we have explicitly consented to the uses of this app, turned it on and off, and thereby “buy in to” being surveilled. That is the danger – that we come to acquiesce to no privacy even more. We used to think of this as “big brother” watching us, by which we meant the government. We are even more nervous about capital surveillance. (see The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff).
Now the arguments are about whether people should be required to vaccinate and whether and what kind of proof they must have, along with where and under what circumstances the proof must be offered (employment, attending theatre, public transit, using a public washroom, attending school or university, working at particular employment}. One thinks of the WWII and Cold War movies about countries in which police routinely demand that one show “your papers.” We instinctively recoil from that kind of surveillance. Many have given up their privacy by their participation in Facebook, Instagram, etc. So it is a matter of whether you have given informed consent to being surveilled, or whether it is become so ubiquitous, and perhaps in the age of COVID so beneficial, that objection seems superfluous.
But it is also a matter of whether issues of public health are so important that our rights to privacy, freedom of assembly and expression, and so forth, are morally and ethically less important than foundationally good public health.
Further discussion and informed consent are needed.
There is enormous danger of deliberate deception in social media. We had already been accustomed to this even before anti-vaccine groups and political parties began spreading false information. The fact that they do this is bad enough by itself; the fact that so many people are willing to pay attention to this stuff on-line without discriminating, also of long standing, is worse (see Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, Kevin Roose, and How to Think: a Survival Guide for a World at Odds, by Alan Jacobs). The fact that these deceptions work is terrible. The fact that anyone would want to deceive in these ways, some even profiting from doing so (see https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/05/12/993615185/for-some-anti-vaccine-advocates-misinformation-is-part-of-a-business) is horrendous. Difficult to understand why anyone would want to harm others.
There have been challenges to conducting parliaments in person and/or remotely, including the issues of who attends sessions, how often, and how much to allow government to function without challenge or check during a crisis (see https://www.samaracanada.com/research/political-leadership/representation-in-isolation.) It will require the passage of time, and much reconsidering, to come to respectable and trustworthy, also non-partisan, conclusions.
There are issues surrounding conducting justice in a pandemic (see https://www.scc-csc.ca/court-cour/notice-avis-COVID-19-eng.aspx as an example).
In both Canada and the U.S. some prisoners have been released from the prisons, although usually with some sort of tracking or other surety, in order to get away from COVID. This has highlighted the question as to whether imprisonment, especially on remand (Canada), is beneficial to the prisoner or to society. I haven’t seen any writing yet about whether there were problems getting the prisoners back or whether it was eventually decided to let them stay out. But the issues around remand are significant – here you have people who have not been to trial who are imprisoned, some long enough that convictions lead to reduction of sentencing for time already served. How can it possibly be right to hold people for long periods of time without trial? COVID has forced us, I hope, to look this question straight in the eye and ask, “If letting them out for health reasons has not caused problems for society, perhaps that should have been done to begin with?”
The Long Crisis is Wearing
The enduring length of the pandemic may have exhausted the abilities and stamina of the politicians and the bureaucrats. Initially, in Canada, cooperation among politicians and bureaucratsat local and senior government levels, even across parties, surprised us all. Sixteen months in, some things are deteriorating. Inevitably, decisions by even the chief medical officers of health and their professional advisory panels, are being questioned. Epidemiologists and immunologists at other hospitals and universities are experts as well. Opinions in Ontario offered by our famous Hospital for Sick Kids have not always jibed with school board opinions. People in the front lines – nurses, physicians, first responders, workers with the homeless, volunteer groups like Red Cross, teachers and their unions, have great personal stakes in what happens, not only to themselves but to their families. It is unsurprising that while it seemed right in the beginning to defer to the experts in authority, it does not necessarily seem right any more, especially because everyone, including the public, is dealing with almost continuously new situations. The starts and stops we’ve experienced cannot help but instill doubt that only certain authoritative people know what should be done. The fact that we in Canada pay attention also to what is being learned in other countries and to international authorities, provides further uncertainty — not everyone seems to be advising the same thing at the same time.
To its credit, the Ontario government appointed, less than a year into the pandemic, an independent commission to take testimony from elected and appointed officials, and examine the actions to date. Their findings have been published recently, along with those of the Auditor General. While some things were done well, many were not. This adds to the uncertainty even while it establishes some transparency.
This suggests the possible need for some other structure to guide us through such times. One wants elected leaders to always be the finally accountable ones (in Canada, this means the whole parliament, not just the government side), but one also wants to avoid undue preferential treatments for political benefit. On the other hand, relying on independent processes which, once deployed, cannot be breached, could be bad because there is always need to reconsider – maybe turning left at the last intersection would have put us on a better road?
The unexpected length of this crisis in addition to its urgency, may continue to illuminate wrong choices in other jurisdictions as well as our own. Building an institutional process to deal with such long-term problems is a task in its own right. The fact that the worries around COVID are compounded with those about the climate emergency-driven heat waves, droughts, and floods, along with concerns about other medical procedures which are postponed, and also the growing opioid overdose problems, shows that we must be planning for more than one emergency at a time, whether brief or enduring. As an ethicist, I think that ethical values as well as the decision-making processes and their results, should be considered. Such values should be explicitly inculcated into all planning and execution processes. We have heard often that plans and actions don’t have to be perfect to be good, and this is doubtless true and helpful. But we must never decide that getting by as best we can all we should expect of ourselves, humble though we may be (see the blog cited above). We must reject that typical Canadian aphorism “not too bad, under the circumstances.”
I hope that when this pandemic is done (however that may be defined – perhaps being downgraded to an epidemic we must live with, like the flu) there will have been a great deal of study by all appropriate institutions to help us avoid such institutional, structural, and process problems in the future, and to plan for dealing with the successor problems. But I also hope that public consultations will continue endlessly, so that we never finish reconsidering these matters.
Part 2 will be in a subsequent post.