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Posted on April 6, 2020 at 2:18 PM

by Daniel W. Tigard, Ph.D.

As our evening entertainment during the recent weeks of social distancing, my wife and I have been watching the TV rendition of The Handmaid’s Tale, based upon Margaret Atwood’s important novel. It is a captivating yet disturbing story of a dystopian future in which a mysterious disease brings about alarming drops in human fertility rates. As a result, a powerful fundamentalist religious sect seizes control of what was the United States, enslaves and rapes the young women who remain fertile, and institutes a highly segregated social order complete with color-coded uniforms for the differentiated members of society: blood red for the handmaids, an elegant blue for the esteemed wives, and so on. Whether in public or private, the coding system is a stark representation of each woman’s capacities, rights, privileges, and duties.

Last week, it was reported that government officials in the U.K. are considering “immunity passports” for individuals who are tested and confirmed as immune to the COVID-19 virus. The basic idea is that those who have contracted and recovered from the virus can be exempted from any existing lockdown restrictions, and can return to normal life—at least as much as possible. In other words, some individuals can be systematically recognized for possessing rare capacities and, in light of this, can be awarded a unique set of rights, privileges, and perhaps duties. And while I’m obviously biased by my immersion in Atwood’s harrowing world, I couldn’t help but consider the similarities in motivations and ethical implications. I want to reflect on some of them here, specifically on the inequality and segregation that might be imagined as arising from a governmental program to institute COVID-19 immunity passports. For readers who don’t intend to stay long, the short story is: in order to avoid dystopian segregation in times of crisis, major social and economic policy decisions are best made collectively, even if among isolated individuals.

First, for some positive considerations, it seems that the underlying motivation to roll-out an immunity passport system may be relatively well-intentioned. Clearly, the idea of social distancing is met with some resistance by those who place a high value on social interaction, and perhaps even by those who are more introverted, should the lockdowns persist for an extended period. Indeed, the social nature of humankind has led to reports that the isolation will harm our mental health and, even long after the spike in infections, will bring about a secondary pandemic of mental health problems, including increased anxiety or post-traumatic stress. In this way, the opportunity to receive a passport—a return-trip to the social world—would be a much welcomed development for many of us (assuming we’re not alone once we get there).

Another well-intentioned motivation of a COVID-19 passport system is, of course, to help turn the tide on the immediate health crisis and corresponding economic downturn. With healthcare workers who are themselves in good health and not a risk to others, crucial facilities can be more adequately staffed and fully functional—this is a key benefit-maximizing justification for prioritizing frontline healthcare workers in the distribution of scarce resources and medical care. However, as NPR reports, it’s not clear whether or not those who contract the virus and recover will be immune or for how long. In terms of economic effects, the worldwide situation appears equally unclear. Three days ago, the New York Times reported that the jobless claims in the U.S. hit an unprecedented 6.6 millionfor the past week alone, roughly ten times the previous record for unemployment filings set in 1982. Here too, opportunities to receive a COVID-19 passport might seem like an important move, both for crucial healthcare workers and perhaps also for less essential members of the workforce, simply in order to resuscitate the economy.

Nonetheless, as some persuasively argue, risking masses of lives for the sake of the economy is deeply unsettling—and indeed presents a false choice. And again, it should be borne in mind that multiple researchers have suggested that recovering from the virus does not guarantee future immunity. If it did, a case might be made in favor of select individuals not only being exempted from lockdown restrictions, but being morally obligated to march to the frontlines and help. For, like a good superhero, they would know that “with great power comes great responsibility.” But here, if there is a parallel to Atwood’s world, it is a troubling one. Only the cruelest of Atwood’s characters are of the opinion that women who remain fertile amidst the fictive crisis are obligated to help promote their government’s religious ideal. Similarly, it takes a deranged leader in today’s real-world crisis to suggest that some, those who may or may not be immune, can be blatantly sacrificed for the good of the almighty economy.

No doubt, we should give pause to policies that might incentivize laborers to deliberately contract COVID-19 as a means of returning to the workforce. Apart from the obvious risks to health, many will be compelled to return to work under conditions of duress—for example, for fear of falling into debt. And given that immunity is unclear to begin with, providing a catchall “passport” out of one’s social isolation and back into normal working life is dangerous, for it may convey a sense of false security, particularly to those bearing unequal social and economic burdens.

Atwood portrays the leaders in her imagined crisis as coldly self-righteous, justifying their new segregated social order with the thought that “better never means better for everyone.” In times of crisis and uncertainty, it may seem that making the best of a terrible situation requires at least a risk of harm to a select few. But surely justice demands that the decisions that carry such implications be made with an eye to benefitting those most directly affected. Granted, it might appear quite harmless to offer an immunity passport, an alleged ticket back to normalcy, to those who wish to take on a degree of risk. Still, in order to avoid sacrificing those who are unwillingly compelled to take on the risk, we can deliberate and decide on such measures as a moral community, and hopefully see that our elected officials aim to protect everyone, particularly those most vulnerable. Just as the success of “flattening the curve” calls for widespread participation, important social and economic policies that stand to impact us all call for collective decisions, even if made in isolation.

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