A utilitarian response

I self-identify as both a classical liberal and as a utilitarian. I believe that good public policy and good individual, personal choices are grounded in the notion of doing the greatest good for the greatest number. I am also a septuagenarian, closer to being 80 than 75, and I must accept that the COVID-19 pandemic may force some utilitarian choices on society and that my, personal, well being, my life, in fact, is not more important than any other life, and society may have to make a utilitarian based choice and decide, for the greater good of all, that scarce medical resources must be allocated to younger people, my sons and grandsons, for example, and, consequentially, withheld from old folks, like me, who are nearing the end of their natural lives.

Screen Shot 2020-03-23 at 06.44.43Professor Niall Ferguson, the eminent Scots-American historian and author who is, currently, the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University, writes, in an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, that “If, as seems increasingly likely, a significant number of western countries are going to continue mismanaging the pandemic caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2 – the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, in December – then a very large number of old people are going to die before their time … [and, given the rate at which the COVID-19 virus spreads and the state of our (Canadian) health care system] … it is true, too, that doctors in an overwhelmed hospital with insufficient intensive care units are correct, from a utilitarian perspective, to give priority to the young over those nearing the end of their natural lives.

Yet,” Professor Ferguson says, “when this pandemic has run its course – when we have achieved “herd immunity” as a species and when vaccines and therapies have been devised – there will have been a lot more funerals for elderly Italians and, very probably, Americans and Britons. There will be fewer for senior Taiwanese or South Korean citizens … [and] … the reason for this discrepancy will not be bad luck. The reason will be that east Asian countries drew the right conclusions from the searing experiences of SARS in 2003, while most western countries drew the wrong conclusions from their relatively mild encounter with H1N1, commonly known as swine flu, in 2009.

He goes on to explain that “It was not only Donald Trump’s irresponsible nonchalance … [which was mirrored and magnified by Justin Trudeau here in Canada who, if possible, reacted even more irresponsibly] … that did the damage. There were also failures by the very organizations that were supposed to prepare our countries for a threat such as this. In the United States, there has been a scandalous insufficiency of testing kits … [and] … In the United Kingdom … [as in Canada] … policy was initially based on the notion that the country would be better off aiming for early herd immunity – until epidemiologists such as my near namesake Neil Ferguson [my hyperlink added] pointed out the likely disastrous consequences … [and now] … Because of these blunders, the U.S. and the U.K. … [and Canada] … have moved far too slowly to adopt the combination of mass testing, enforced social distancing and contact tracing that has successfully contained the virus’s spread in east Asian countries. There is a reason that the death toll, (as of Sunday) in South Korea is just more than100, while in Italy it is more than 5,000.

I am likely to be called upon to accept a utilitarian response to difficult choices which Screen Shot 2019-07-25 at 03.58.42will have to be made by our excellent (and underpaid and overworked) medical community. I accept that; I have lived a long and happy life and scarce resources are better used to save those who can contribute more to our future. I count myself lucky that one of my sons and my two grandsons live in Australia, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the smart choices early on, unlike Justin Trudeau who practised only virtue signalling.

How many people will die in the end?” Niall Ferguson asks, “We do not know,” he answers, but “In the U.S., if Italian conditions are replicated in New York and California, we could see between half a million and million deaths by the end of this year … [that could (worst case, I hope) translate to 50,000 to 100,000 in Canada, and] …  I have seen estimates as high as 1.7 million, even 2.2 million. The other Ferguson’s worst-case scenario for Britain was 510,000 deaths. But the key point is that most of the victims will be old. And most of the deaths could have been avoided with better preparation and earlier action.

In the opening paragraphs of his opinion piece Profesor Ferguson explained the difference between the words genocide (the murder or a tribe or a people) and senicide (the murder of the elderly). He concludes by saying that: “The explorers Knud Rasmussen and Gontran de Poncins reported that senicide was still practiced by the Netsilik Inuits of King William Island in Canada as recently as the 1930s. But senicide will never be tolerated in the 2020s, least of all in modern, developed democracies. Those whose sins of omission and commission lead to nationwide senicides will, like the perpetrators of genocides in the 20th century, be judged harshly, not only by history, but also by voters – and quite possibly by judges, too.” Justin Trudeau may be one of those guilty of “sins of omission” …

… and so might Patty Hajdu, Bill Blair and Chrystia Freeland.

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