An epic conundrum
The ethicality and efficacy of the decision to lockdown in combating COVID-19 must not be questioned without due consideration to the role of timing and context in these decisions
Lockdown versus livelihood! This dichotomy has been discussed frequently for the past few days. The decision of lockdown has received mixed reactions from the critics. In one of the articles seen recently, the decision of lockdown has even been termed as unethical! The action can be termed unethical only if it fails to qualify either of ethical tests, such as smell test, virtue test, utility test etc, or the action is taken with any bias and without keeping in mind the values for public services such as integrity, objectivity, rationality and empathy.
Policymakers often undergo ethical dilemmas during the decision making process. The resolution of such ethical dilemmas is difficult, as the selection is not between 'right' and 'wrong' but often between 'right' and 'more right'. The decision-makers are not only faced with opposed and perhaps equally important alternatives; even worse, their incompatible juxtaposition also implies that they are mutually exclusive and satisfaction of the one can only be made if the other is sacrificed. Solving a dilemma often resembles a zero-sum game, whereby the choice of one value alternative is necessarily followed by the negation of the other.
The lockdown vs livelihood dilemma presents a problem for the policymakers across the globe. The ethicality of the decision of lockdown for the COVID-19 scenario, therefore, needs to be understood in the correct perspective and timeframe.
The lockdown decision was implemented on March 24 after the success of the one day Janta Curfew. During that time, India hardly had 100+ COVID-19 cases. The examples of the developed countries and their handling of the COVID-19 scenario was available before us. In the European countries, due to negligence and delayed lockdown, a spurt of COVID-19 cases was observed alongside a rapid rise in mortality rate. India had an option to delay the lockdown at the cost of increasing the cases and burdening the skewed health services, in the country, leading to the possibility of an unknown health crisis, of its kind! The government had no weapon and cure for this invisible enemy! It had two options either to go by European way of delaying the handling of COVID-19 or go by the Chinese way of stricter lockdown measures to break the chain of virus spread. Given the fact India is a country with one of the highest population densities in the world, coupled with inadequate health infrastructure and no sign of a cure available soon, the government had no option but to control the disease before its full arrival and spread in the country. There was no ethical dilemma at this stage. Presuming 21 days of lockdown may wipe out the virus, the country decided to go for the Lockdown 1.0. Taking a utilitarian view, with the 'end' justifying the 'act', in the larger interest of the population, the Government took the ethical decision of lockdown. Simultaneously, welfare measures were ensured, with an adequate supply of ration, transfer of benefits to the poor, etc. The Government was aided in this venture by individuals, NGOs and corporates to more effectively fight the common enemy. The hopes prevailed the short term sufferings.
After 21 days, the problem was not over! The Government had to extend the lockdown, which led to clouds of uncertainty looming large. Lockdown 2.0 and its subsequent continuity led to the surfacing of the problem of large scale migration, rise in unemployment, economic slowdown, etc. With these demons, the Government faced an ethical dilemma between lockdown and livelihood! A utilitarian approach to an ethical dilemma, suggests that the 'ends' are important whereas a Deontological approach suggests that 'means' are more important in the balance'.
The Government during Lockdown 2.0 and later, tried to find a midway solution from both these approaches, balancing both 'ends' and 'means'. Here, the result was to ensure a country free from COVID-19 and the means resorted to were a lockdown and other measures, inflicting minimum damage. The Government has been trying to achieve a balance by continuing the lockdown with an option of selective relaxation in economic activities, relaxed labour norms, movement of migrant labourers with permits and other evolving norms, daily.
The world was unprepared for this pandemic! Countries are learning more with experimental policy setups in combatting this virus. Unfortunately, this learning is coming at the cost of human suffering. The decisions can be applauded or criticised at a later stage based on its efficacy but they cannot be termed as unethical. This option of criticising is available with critics who look into decision making from a distance and with a time lag but not with the government, who has to resolve ethical dilemmas, differentiating between the 'right' and 'more right', every day!
The writer is the Joint Director of I&B Ministry, Govt of India. Views expressed are strictly personal