‘A grim calculus’ is in prospect.

I have always had a problem with Sartre’s famous quote in that I am too much of an agnostic to assent to the word ‘illusion’. This minor quibble aside, Sartre is reaching for something important when he asserts that most of us will experience purposive ‘moments’ within our lives and invariably these will transpire when we feel under mortal threat. Such existential threats “… occur when one recognises that even the decision to either refrain from action or withhold assent to a particular choice is, in itself, a choice” [Wikipedia]. I believe such a choice is imminent for many, if not all of us.

As the Coronavirus passes its peak, governments will be revealing their plans for how public life is to be conducted after Wave One. As I have suggested in all my previous articles, the decision to place a country in lockdown was essentially one dictated by a lack of preparedness, in terms of medical resources; in order to avoid preventable deaths among members of the population, whose profiles in terms of age and/or medical history place them in the high-risk category. With Wave One behind them, governments – in the absence of vaccines and/or curative medications – will essentially be offering black or white diktats to those at either end of the risk spectrum:

  • if you are ‘old’ and/or have underlying health conditions: stay isolated
  • if you are under a certain age and have no health issues: resume normal life and keep away from the at-risk group

However, I think that a huge swathe of the population in the middle will be more-or-less given the advice to maintain social distancing if they feel at risk. In other words, they will be placed within a ‘grey area’ of deciding whether all or selective ‘normal’ activities represent an existential threat to our lives.

How are we to assess that risk vs the social and/or economic benefits of embracing life, in part or to the full, as we knew it in per pre-Coronavirus times?

In 1972 a module of my degree course, World Population & Resources, involved writing a paper comparing the laws on abortion either side of The Iron Curtain. Around the subject of medical abortion, there was a discussion as which were the right circumstances to abort a foetus. Most commentators were prepared to accept that abortion was in order when the mother had contracted Rubella. However, was it right to carry out an abortion when there were indications of the danger of a less probable abnormality? Even in the case of Rubella – where there is an 85% certainty that a baby born at term will suffer a serious abnormality – out of 100 abortions, 15 will be perfectly normal babies. In the whole, percentages such as these facilitate policy decisions but it is quite a different matter when it is your personal singular decision to make.

In the article below, which appeared in today’s Times, Paul Johnson – (surely one of the more objective governmental advisors) – discusses the difficulties in making policy decisions in the current circumstances. I was particularly exercised by his identification of 2 biases that policymakers are prone to

  • a bias towards the present and an underweighting of the future
  • the bias of salience: the immediately obvious (accidents) vs the incipient (pollution)

In the first part of the article, (not reprinted), Johnson emphasises how much difficult these decisions are, given the medical & epidemiological unknowns; let alone the ethical dimensions involved in such determinations. However, the difficulties that affect societal decisions are also true at the personal level for those of us at the ‘grey centre’. For instance, The Ericle who is 70 and believes that he is in reasonably good health, is being told that he is in an 8% mortality risk decile; how does he balance the life objectives that he had prior to Coronavirus against the risks involved in reverting to them? Millions of us will be asking ourselves the same sorts of questions in the coming weeks.

However, before you get too involved with such existential ponderings, I’d recommend that you take a time-out and enjoy the hysterical Monty Python ‘Jean-Paul Sartre’ script here. Well, you don’t want to come back from Sorrento to a dead cat? It’d be so anticlimactic!

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