How long should the lockdown last?

If there’s anyone you absolutely must follow on Twitter it’s Peter Singer. He’s the world’s most influential moral philosopher and someone I would describe as a modern-day Jesus. You can follow him here:

In 100 years the world will look back and see Peter Singer as someone who did more than anyone else to change the world for the better. He donates more than 10% of his income to the poor and started the movement on effective giving which is about giving money to save lives. He thinks we all have a moral obligation to people less fortunate than ourselves. He brought speciesism and animal rights into the mainstream. I think there are many more vegans in the world today thanks largely to him. His book, Animal Liberation, had a profound influence on me.

Peter Singer writes a regular column in Project Syndicate with topics ranging from the Notre Dame fire to Rugby Australia’s “Own Goal”. His articles are always thought-provoking and the arguments easy to follow, even for amateurs like me. I’ve read many of his books now – his writing is very accessible and he never uses obscure words. He believes in moral objectivity and uses reason and logic to make his arguments. I even emailed him once about an ethical dilemma I had and he responded promptly.

This is kind of a long-winded introduction to Peter Singer’s latest Project Syndicate article on how long the lockdowns should last. This is the million dollar question everyone is asking and although he doesn’t specifically answer the question except with – “It seems safe to say that the right time to end the lockdowns is sometime between today and ten years.” – he does tackle how we might go about answering that question.

He points out that there’s no escaping the trade-off between lives and livelihoods.

Some people insist that there is, in practice, no trade-off: lockdowns are better for saving lives and the economy. This seems to be wishful thinking. Presumably, such people are supposing lockdowns will end soon. But if we end lockdowns before vanquishing COVID-19, some people will die from the disease who otherwise would have lived. It’s not so simple to escape the trade-off between saving lives and saving livelihoods.

He also points to something called the “identified cause effect” which may be restricting our thinking when it comes to who suffers during a pandemic.

First, we must not overlook the potential costs of containing coronavirus. Research in moral psychology has revealed an “identified victim effect.” People prefer to offer aid to a specific, known victim rather than provide the same benefit to each of a larger, vaguely defined set of individuals. We think the identified victim effect is a moral mistake – we should strive to do as much good as possible, even when we do not know exactly who gains.1

Something equivalent – call it an “identified cause effect” – may be limiting our collective thinking about COVID-19: we are focusing on a specific known source of suffering, even if we do not know who suffers, and neglecting other problems. Could the images of people dying on stretchers in tents in hospital parking lots be blinding us to the greater harm we may be causing across society through our efforts to avoid those awful deaths?

His conclusion is that we can calculate how long the lockdowns should last and even whether they are the right policy in the first place by looking at wellbeing.

To focus on one major concern, ten million US jobs have been lost in just two weeks, almost entirely due to the pandemic. In India, the lockdown has devastated migrant workers, many of whom have no other means of support. We all agree that unemployment is bad, but it’s not obvious how we should trade unemployment against years of healthy life.

Thinking directly in terms of wellbeing allows us to make this comparison. Unemployment has dire effects on wellbeing, reducing individuals’ life satisfaction by 20%. With this information, we can compare the human costs of a lockdown to the wellbeing gained by extending lives. A broader analysis would include other impacts, such as social isolation and anxiety, and tell us when a lockdown should be lifted.

COVID-19 will be with us for some time. Are months of government-enforced lockdowns the right policy? We don’t know, and as moral philosophers, we can’t answer this question on our own. Empirical researchers need to take on the challenge of calculating the effects, not in terms of wealth or health, but in the ultimate currency, wellbeing.