The Politics of Covid Just Got Even More Hellish
A new strain of Covid-19, more contagious than previous strains, is now circulating in dozens of countries. Other new strains, such as one first detected in South Africa, will almost certainly emerge. Aside from the challenges these mutations pose to public health, they will also be a test of our moral and political principles. As exhausted as we all are from making stressful judgments throughout this pandemic, we are about to face some of the most difficult trade-offs yet.
Preliminary data indicate that the new strain in the U.K. allows the virus to spread from one person to another more easily. The practical upshot is that even the strict lockdowns of early 2020, such as the one just ordered in the U.K. by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, may not be enough to reverse the spread of the virus.
It is far from obvious that politicians will be able to sell voters on strict lockdowns if they still allow the virus to spread. Furthermore, vaccine distribution has been sufficiently slow that a full lockdown would have to last for many months, and that probably isn’t feasible or desirable. Yet not having lockdowns would lead to a much more rapid spread of the virus, overloading hospitals and public health facilities.
It’s hard to come up with the moral language to compare those outcomes when all of them are unacceptably bad. Trust in elites is already weak in the U.S., and it is likely to wane further. Whatever one might think is the correct course of action, how exactly would or should a President Joe Biden present and defend it to the public?
A further set of moral dilemmas comes from the interaction of viral spread and the vaccine process. If the virus is spreading more quickly, then so should vaccinations. The U.K. will be vaccinating a greater number of people with a single dose, and giving them the second dose somewhat later, rather than reserving second doses for a rapid follow-up within two to three weeks. The Brits also might experiment with giving a first dose of one vaccine, and a second dose of a different vaccine, to stretch the available supply. That might work, but it is also untested and thus it involves some risk.