Pandemic Ethics: Part 3

Today we conclude our three part series devoted to Ben Bramble’s just published open access book Pandemic Ethics. 

A Revolutionary Argument: How and Why to Change Things Post-Pandemic

Ben Bramble

Here are some claims about what we should be doing during the pandemic:

  1. While the virus is raging out of control, non-essential workers should not be allowed to go to work. Instead, we should be supporting them to stay at home.
  2. Nobody should have to pay for healthcare for testing or treatment for COVID-19.
  3. We should put in place postal voting to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to vote at this time.
  4. We should give individuals and small businesses rent breaks or reductions, or prohibit evictions, at this time.
  5. The wealthiest companies should be switching their production lines to things that are so badly needed but in short supply right now.
  6. We shouldn’t be buying luxury goods right now—it’s distasteful.

I hope you will agree that these claims are all highly plausible. (If not, check out my book for arguments.)

Now, for a surprising claim: the reasons for which we should be doing these things for the sake of most people during the pandemic apply equally in normal times, to assist and protect a significant subset of us (including many who are socio-economically disadvantaged). These reasons are exactly the same in kind. If you accept that the former exist, you must also accept that the latter exist.

Start with (1). Why shouldn’t non-essential workers be working right now? It is because of the health risks posed to them (as well as to others whom they might infect) by going to work right now. It is unacceptable that these people be exposed to such a risk of severe illness, death, or long-term health complications that might reduce their life quality in the long run or result in early death.

But now, many workers in normal times face equivalent risks from the work they do over the course of their lifetimes. While few face exposure to a killer virus, or even much of a chance of dying on the job, many have significantly increased risks of illness in the long run. These risks are due to, for example, prolonged standing or sitting, staring at screens, stress, boredom, lack of opportunity for creative expression or autonomy, repeated exposure to contaminants, job insecurity, and so on. The health conditions they face include hypertension, heart disease, cancer, musculoskeletal disorders, and mental illness.

If it is unacceptable to allow most people during the pandemic to risk their health by going to work, then it is also unacceptable to allow so many workers in normal times to face equivalent risks by working their normal jobs.

The solution, of course, is not to keep the latter workers at home in normal times, but simply to improve their working lives—say, by allowing them to work fewer hours for better pay, or in better conditions.

Turn now to (2). Why shouldn’t people today have to pay for healthcare due to COVID-19? Part of it is that the virus is so hard to avoid right now. And part of it is that the treatments are, for most people, prohibitively expensive. If people had to pay for these treatments right now, many wouldn’t seek medical care when they should do so. It is inhumane to have a system that deters people from seeking treatment right now because of the high costs involved.

But now, in normal times, while there is no killer virus circulating (at least, not in wealthier countries), there are countless other health conditions that affect people more or less indiscriminately (through no fault of their own) and are for many people prohibitively expensive to treat. It follows that in normal times, we should be providing free healthcare to people for these conditions. To fail to do so is inhumane in precisely the same way that it is inhumane not to treat people who are sickened with COVID-19.

Turn now to (3). Why should everyone have access to postal ballots at this time? It is because it is unacceptably burdensome right now to go to polling stations.

But this is exactly the same sort of situation that a large subset of citizens face with respect to voting in normal times. They have to work, or look after children, or cannot drive, etc. So, in normal times, for the exact same reason, we should be making voting far easier for these people than it is—say, by increasing the number of polling stations, helping to drive people to stations, or improving access to postal ballots.

Turn now to (4). Why should we give rent breaks or prohibit evictions during the pandemic? It is because the reason so many people cannot pay rent is that they have suffered job loss or illness through no fault of their own.

But now, in normal times, it is also often the case that people cannot pay rent because of job losses or illness that is no fault of their own. We should assist them, too, then. This is not to say they should be allowed to stay on, rent-free, indefinitely. But greater assistance should be given.

Turn now to (5). Why must companies help out during this time? It is because of the dire threats people are facing.

But, as I’ve argued, many people in normal times are facing equivalently dire threats. These threats are partly workplace-related over the course of their lifetimes. But they go beyond this. People on low incomes are much less able to afford healthy food, housing that is near to green spaces, leisure time or holidays, good quality healthcare that allows them to get early diagnoses or treatments for health conditions, and so on. All of these things greatly increase one’s chance of bad health problems later in life.

Just as large private companies should be marshalling their resources now during the pandemic to contribute to preventing bad health outcomes for people, they should be doing so in normal times as well, by paying more taxes.

Turn now to (6). Why is it distasteful to buy luxury goods right now? Because millions of people are suffering needlessly, through no fault of their own.

But in normal times, there are also many millions of people suffering needlessly, through no fault of their own (for example, in developing countries, from a variety of causes). So, we shouldn’t be buying luxury goods in normal times either.

In normal times, life is, for a certain subset of the population, relevantly like how the pandemic is for most people today. If we should make sacrifices to help the latter today, then we should make sacrifices once the pandemic is over to help the former. If we do not, then we risk escaping the pandemic only to leave many people still trapped within something equivalently bad.


7 Replies to “Pandemic Ethics: Part 3

  1. You say, “If it is unacceptable to allow most people during the pandemic to risk their health by going to work, then it is also unacceptable to allow so many workers in normal times to face equivalent risks by working their normal jobs.” It seems to be that we think it is unacceptable for people to work for short periods of time. If you break your arm, you can stay home. We will give you sick leave, but we won’t pay you the rest of your life. All workers are essential in some sense, but some can be put on hold for a short period of time.

    One might argue that the reason no one should have to pay for a COVID test and for subsequent healthcare is that it is in the national interest that people with COVID be quarantined and not spread the disease. I would also add that it is just for those reasons that we should make sure that anyone who decides to self-quarantine is not discouraged from doing so for fear of losing pay. Following this line of reasoning, one might argue that it is in the national interest that workers be kept in good health so that they can continue working. It seems to me that this is also in the interest of employers. Unfortunately, our medical establishment is not sufficiently dedicated to keeping people healthy, much more to healing sick people. Insurance companies and some businesses have been for years trying to turn this very slow turning ship since they have a vested interest in the outcome.

    Regarding three, I have mixed views. I agree we could make voting easier, although I don’t think it’s that difficult. Most workplaces already provide time off for voting. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to make it “too” easy. I already have a very low opinion of American politics and, frankly, find many Americans ill-informed and easily led for that very reason. But this is probably hopeless.

    Yeah, rent, food, clothes, healthcare, these are all things we ought to help people out with, all of which are more or less implemented. The devil is in the details: how to do it. I don’t mind disorganization. There’s a lot to be said for it.

    Regarding five, it is not easy for firms to shift what they produce. This is why there is a shortage of meat, and that’s just a seemingly small change. Companies already respond to demand. That’s how they survive. If they don’t, they sink. It seems that you want to be the one deciding what they produce. You’ve decided that people need healthier food. I would agree with that. Apparently, they don’t agree with you or me. Some people can’t afford healthy food. Having been very poor, I’m not sure I agree with that. Poor people, like wealthier people, make poor food choices. Then there are those who aren’t getting enough food. Yeah, we can afford it. Let’s help them out. I’ve never been in a city that doesn’t do this already. We’ve had “food stamps” for a good 50 years. Almost every school child in America gets meals served to them, even if they do waste much of it. We’re doing OK in this regard. I’m sure there are other things we could worry about.

    We’ve already talked about the last.

  2. Hi Ben,

    Sorry for commenting only now. The weekend was busier than expected.

    So, I don’t disagree with anything you say here, nor the more general sweep of the idea. However, one matter I want to draw attention to is how we frame the whole discussion. By ‘we’ I mean many people, both philosophers and non-philosophers. This may well include you, although you are quiet on the issue, hence the question.

    One could, with much justification, call the current situation one of ’emergency’. Even if one argues that some of the people who have died or fallen severely ill because of Covid-19 would have died or fallen severely ill anyway, clearly there are a lot who have done so directly and only because of Covid-19, plus this strain has particularly nasty effects. Plus the volume of people dying and falling ill is significant. The economic effects are obvious for all to see. Etc. So, for argument’s sake it seems plain this is an emergency.

    Question: to what extent do you think of ‘normal’ times, i.e. non-pandemic times, as emergency times? I suspect you will, and again with some justification. One could point to huge changes in our modern climate, our food production and supply chain, the levels of inequality around the world, the decrease in the potency of various medicines, etc. A few recent philosophy books take ’emergency’ and these issues as themes and starting points.

    So, then, I am just thinking about what that means. After all, one could argue that whilst the particular forms of emergency change, one could always argue that we are living in emergencies of one form or another. There are plenty of historical periods that could be classed in this way and plenty of writers contemporary with the period that think in this way, too.

    What are the philosophical implications of that? (I don’t agree with what I am about to say. I am just interested in your reaction.) Going back to your list, one could say that if anything this gives extra impetus for us to change the world for the better. Fine. But I worry that every change will bring about some unwanted and negative consequences. It could be that we change to mitigate one emergency only to find we have created a different one. (E.g. technological advancement has been done for all sorts of reasons, but at least one is to improve the lot of many humans and increase average lifespans, but this has had terrible consequences for our environment.) So, the thought might go, we are always in an emergency of one sort of another.

    Question: once we see this, should that fact itself heighten or lessen our motivations to change things? Or is there no difference? How does my invocation of ’emergency’ affect our reasoning? So, again, I note you don’t use the word, but your drawing so tightly the parallels between the current pandemic and ‘normal’ times (note the quotation marks), that I think the question is pertinent.


    Thanks again for the three posts, and the book. S

  3. Ben,
    Here are some excerpts from recent news reports:
    “Nursing homes have been the center of America’s coronavirus pandemic, with more than 62,000 residents and staff dying from Covid-19 at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, about 40 percent of the country’s virus fatalities.” New York Times, August 16, 2020.

    “In the weeks that followed the March 25 order, COVID-19 tore through New York state’s nursing facilities, killing more than 6,000 people — about 6% of its more than 100,000 nursing home residents. In all, as many as 4,500 COVID-19 infected patients were sent to nursing homes across the state, according to a count conducted by The Associated Press.” ProPublica, June 16, 2020

    “There are five seniors’ care facilities in Canada where more than 40 per cent of residents died during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a CBC News investigation has found.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, July 10, 2020

    “A disturbing new report from the Canadian military paints a picture of severe neglect inside several of Ontario’s long-term care homes struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic, including observations of insect infestations, staffing shortages and patients being underfed and left in soiled diapers… To date during the pandemic, Ottawa has deployed nearly 300 military personnel to Ontario care homes, and more than 1,500 to homes in Quebec. Public health officials have said roughly 80 percent of Canada’s Covid-19-related deaths are linked to long-term care homes.” Politico, May 26, 2020

    The news coverage of how COVID-19 has impacted seniors and younger disabled people in nursing homes and other congregate living arrangements has been extensive across traditional news outlets and social media, shining a spotlight on how certain marginalized sectors of the population have been neglected and mistreated, as well as the ageism, ableism, and racism that have enabled the production of this mistreatment and its persistence. Indeed, I have written three posts about COVID-19 and nursing homes at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, the most recent of which links to a post that I wrote for the blog of the World institute on Disability.

    I’d like to know why the circumstances in nursing homes and other institutions in which seniors, elders, and younger disabled people are segregated, institutions whose workforces are primarily made up of racialized and newcomer women, has fallen outside the terms of the “revolutionary argument” that you propose here and indeed is not considered at any length in your book. I could find only two mentions of nursing homes in the book, one of which is to be found in a brief footnote.

    Did I miss something? Surely you are not suggesting that turning one’s attention to the thousands of deaths that have occurred in these places and the predictable conditions that facilitated them is less imperative than one’s refusal to buy a pair of Jimmy Choo pumps. So how do you explain the fact that you have paid little attention to the conditions of these institutions in your critical examination and normative response to the pandemic?

    What is the relation between the neglect of these deaths in your account and other philosophical discussions of the pandemic, the carceral circumstances in which these deaths continue to occur, and the refusal of philosophers to analyse disability in terms of contingent productive and structural power rather than natural disadvantage? For my own part, I want to draw a direct link between the way that mainstream (and even feminist) philosophers continue to sideline the horrific impact of the pandemic on disabled, senior, and other marginalized and institutionalized constituencies and the continued exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession.

  4. Hi Bill, you say that you don’t want to make voting “too” easy. This sounds deeply problematic to me. I’d like to see everyone voting in the US.

  5. Hi Simon, interesting post. I think that normal times should be regarded as times of emergency in the relevant sense as well. Climate change is an emergency. Our ignoring it doesn’t change this fact.

    Can we ever lift ourselves out of a state of emergency? (Or does preventing one emergency necessarily lead to others, practically speaking?) I think we can emerge from emergency. Things could be bad but not dire or an emergency, in the relevant sense. I don’t even think it would be too hard, if we got our act together, and listened to the relevant experts.

    How bad must a situation be for it to count as dire or an emergency? I don’t know the answer to this question. I think I avoided the language of emergency partly to avoid this question (though it is an interesting one). For me, all that matters is that the current pandemic is relevantly the same (*as* bad, in the relevant ways) as normal times, and so reasons that apply now apply in normal times, too.

  6. Hi Shelley, did I “sideline the horrific impact of the pandemic on disabled, senior, and other marginalized and institutionalized constituencies” in the book? I hope not. One of the main points of the book was that the pandemic disproportionately harms people who have already been let down by our society.

  7. Yes, I understand your concern. But I worry about “thoughtless” voting. I worry about a “thoughtless” political landscape. I worry that an ill-informed, uninvolved public is easily led. I see all of this happening in today’s political landscape. It seems to me that vast numbers of Americans take political involvement as something you might chat about on social media or in the pub. They are consumers of memes and political manipulation. And these are the ones who actually have some kind of interest in the political scene, and says nothing of the vast numbers who never even vote, and this not because it is difficult, but because they simply have no interest. Should we force such people to vote: here, put your X here?

    I’m certain that all that I say here went through the minds of the Founders and those that opposed the American founding. It has long seemed to me that the American public, over the course of a generation or so, do something like evaluation and engage in some kind of political discourse. The average voter doesn’t consider the issues deeply, and there is a very good reason for that: they are too complicated for anyone. We are asked to make decisions about things we know very little about, and this is just as true of our elected legislators. So we stumble along, making mistakes, trying this or that, and over time finding our way in some sense. All of this I’m OK with. However, I worry that making it too easy to vote can throw a monkey wrench into the process. Of course, anything could as well. Don’t get me wrong, I have no interest in suppressing the vote. I think it’s easy enough to vote now. At least it takes some initiative.

    So I don’t take my concern too seriously. I find America’s political environment deplorable, and I don’t think having more people voting is going to make it any better. It’s not only the electorate. It’s those elected as well. I feel suffocated by it. It’s impotent, paralyzed, intentionally polarizing, more like a daytime soap opera. It’s not serious.

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