A Crisis of Lockdown Ethics

by Veena Namboodri, PhD Student, Humanities


The Covid-19 pandemic, a global public health crisis of vast proportions, has proven to be a humanitarian crisis writ large. On March 24, 2020, the Indian government announced a sudden and total nationwide lockdown for a period of 21 days with varying degrees of national, state, and zonal extensions continuing to this day. This lockdown, notorious among the world’s most stringent as per Oxford University’s Government Response Tracker tool, resulted in the widely reported human-made catastrophe of the  “coronavirus migration crisis.” Burdened by the uncertainties of income, food, and the social security of “home,” millions of distressed yet undeterred domestic migrant workers embarked on a walking exodus, leaving their host states and cities as they gambled with starvation, exhaustion, and likely death. In a public apology statement issued a few days later, Prime Minister Modi reasserted that the lockdown enforced on short notice was the “only way to fight and win the battle against the coronavirus.”

In the pointed critiques present in the reports and commentaries that followed, the nature of this migrant crisis, understood primarily as  policymakers’ callous disregard for India’s poor migrants, was quickly linked to a pervasive system of caste inequalities. According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network and Anti-Slavery International’s Covid-19 reports, the pandemic as well as the lockdown have disproportionately affected migrant Dalits (people lowest in the caste hierarchy) and heightened stigmatization, discrimination and violence against them: common proclivities during pandemics noted as structural phenomena of social power. The socioeconomic system of caste apartheid has historically fortified the discourses of “social distancing” and “impurity/untouchability” as inviolable social rituals charted to systematically ostracize Dalits. Moreover, the caste system has ensured their lack of access to education, healthcare, relief in the event of disaster, access to occupations other than menial essential work, and other necessary resources. In May 2020, Chief minister Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh, the highest contributing Indian state to net internal outbound-migrants, anticipating their mass repatriation, added insult to injury by referring to returning migrants as virus carriers and mostly “Dalits and other backward castes”; thereby seeking to eternalize the association of the coronavirus with caste. 

Globally, unequal public health and economic outcomes as well as the widening disparities between the privileged and the underprivileged in the face of this pandemic have revealed and reinforced something of the old: the deep-rootedness of our preexisting conditions of social systemic inequalities made apparent in the excessive suffering of racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ communities, homeless individuals, and other marginalized groups. Similar trends in the effects of draconian lockdowns have also been noted for racial and ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ communities, and those suffering disabilities or homelessness. Under such circumstances, the appraisal of the pandemic as the aphoristic “great equalizer” ingrained in platitudes like “the virus doesn’t discriminate” prove overtly disingenuous if not blatantly inhumane. As is all too evident, such a stance sanitizes the narratives of the real nature of suffering borne disproportionately and omits ethical reflections on our part about the inextricable relation that inequalities bear with the crisis itself.

To foreground the broader leitmotif of social inequality thus reasonably follows from our urge for all to demonstrate a global human solidarity. To be sure, the lockdown policy—enforced with varying stringency around the world as a measure to flatten the curve, a necessary evil, that has resulted in the official edict of “Stay home. Stay safe. Save lives.”—conveys the ethical force of an unequivocal expression of solidarity with  frontline workers and vulnerable populations. However, the resulting “collateral damage” (the war metaphors abound) has been the stigmatization, harassment, criminalization, and even physical brutalization of people who do not comply through excessive policing and vigilantism. In India, the moral paternalism guiding the strict lockdown observance took on a patriotic quality with citizens called on to act as disciplined soldiers even as we were confronted with a lack of transparency, widespread misinformation, and exponential growth in cases. A germane ethical question is then: Could it be that the seeming moral efficacy of an apodictic response (the lockdown) has created a strict ethical binarism between the right (good) vs. the wrong (bad)?

Several ethicists have weighed in on the debate around the ethics of lockdown, and their responses are divided. Normatively, our moral imperative during this crisis is understood within ethical frames such as paternalism or the harm principle: the state’s legitimacy to reduce disease spread through restricted individual freedoms of movement and socialization in the interest of preventing public harm; ethics of care and altruism, our ability to sacrifice, remain patient, and care for others’ lives; and utilitarianism, the moral philosophy guiding our actions to maximize the ultimate “good” consequence by lifting restrictions for economic revival. Alberto Giubilini, a philosopher of ethics at Oxford University, argues in favour of the moral soundness of a strictly enforced lockdown as the only way to ensure fairness, corroborating our prevailing grasp of the situation. Contrarily, Silvia Camporesi, a bioethicist at King’s College London, in her critique of the Italian national lockdown argues the need to consider the unequal long-term social and mental health effects of harsh policies and debunks the notion of a “value-free” model. Stephen John, a philosopher of public health science, has referred to “blurred messaging” (presenting our interests as if they are not in conflict) as a critical factor in ethical decision-making and justifying lockdowns. Ultimately, it is argued, what makes these measures justifiable is how we frame our lockdown ethicality and public interest, which impacts interventions such as police brutality. Principles of clear communication and transparency to justify policies are as crucial as the policies themselves, particularly to prevent perpetuating social injustices and undue burdens. 

A corollary is John’s second suggestion about the indispensability of deliberation and discussions with those most affected by the policies. This implies engaging and centering marginalized voices and narratives that subvert our moral hegemonic frames, seldom observable in our ethical binarism dominated by the value-laden epistemic standpoints of the privileged who determine what the right choice is. A poignant example is the Borders of an Epidemic collection published by Calcutta Research Group, a migration-oriented think tank, that  engages migrants’ discussions of their experiences of insecurity, vulnerability, surveillance, and stigma aggravated by the lockdown to examine our practical and ethical obligations. In the end, radical compassion by way of epistemic humility will go a longer way in reframing our ethical imperative instead of banal woke sympathies.