When will we ask the big ethical questions that coronavirus now demands that we face?

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As the Guardian notes in its morning headline story:

As fears grow over the threat posed by the highly mutated Omicron variant, detected in more than 30 countries, Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert, [the creator of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine,] warned that while it was increasingly obvious that “this pandemic is not done with us”, the next one could be worse.

Is she right? Who can tell? But, given that history makes it clear that pandemics happen, and given that it is clear that we are heading for unknown environments in which radical changes in the conditions that support life will occur, I do on the balance of probability think that she is likely to be so. In that case the question is, what does this mean?

My own sense is that what this threat poses is the question of what is important to us? It would seem that, as yet, there are many in society who are in complete denial about the risks that climate change and pandemics pose, whilst many more appear reluctant to accept the challenges that they pose to the way of living that we have ‘enjoyed’ during the last few decades. In that case there is almost certainly a majority who are not yet willing to suggest what is really important to them. This is reflected in the current state of UK politics, which still prioritises present interests over any long-term consideration.

This, however, does not mean that the question does not need to be asked. Nor does it suggest that this question will not be asked. My suggestion is that the only doubt is about when this question will top the political agenda.

What is it that will create the change? I think that will happen when the current suppressed doubts that many have move towards fear, which in turn requires action on the part of government to address it.

Why are there suppressed doubts? Despite all the excess deaths that have happened, there is no doubt that during this summer and autumn the government succeeded in somehow persuading many people in the UK that this pandemic was over. That is now being shown to very obviously be wrong. However, as populist tropes go, this one has been immensely popular amongst those who the government has deliberately exposed to risk, including all children and their parents. This trope provided false reassurance by suggesting that the government really is not indifferent to their fate, but has instead solved this issue.

Now the reality is becoming obvious. The issue has not been solved. People are very definitely at risk. And although government cost-benefit analysis place very low value on children’s lives because of their limited economic contribution to society, real people have very different perceptions of what is of importance. If, as South African experience to date suggests likely, the next wave of coronavirus does threaten young people then I think that questions will be asked that will begin to reframe priorities.

The question as to why we cannot have clean air in schools, hospitals, workplaces and elsewhere will be one that will be addressed, when it is possible for that to happen.

The trade-off that this will demand in environmental terms because of the resources that producing clean air will consume, will be one of the next to happen.

And, after that, the entire relationship between health, well-being, life itself, the environment, and how we live is likely to be of significant political concern.

I have no doubt that there will be continuing free-rider thinking despite this. In other words, there will be those who deny the problem deliberately so that they need not pay the price that society must settle if we are to maintain safe life on earth. There will also be political parties that will reflect that view. The likelihood that the Conservatives will be one such party is high. But what I expect is that majority sentiment will change.

What I am certainly not expecting, however, is a complete sea change of opinion, overnight. However, I welcome articles such as this one in the Guardian for what they signal is that the time for questions to be asked has arrived. The challenge is that for decades we have had politics in which ethics has been afforded a very low priority. The opposite now needs to be the case. One of the biggest questions is, can we make that transition?