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Philosophers’ Rundown on the Coronavirus Crisis

The outbreak of COVID-19 has raised several ethical and political questions. In this special edition, Aveek Bhattacharya and Fay Niker have collected brief thoughts from Justice Everywhere authors on 9 pressing questions.

Topics include: the feasibility of social justice, UBI, imagining a just society, economic precarity, education, climate change, internet access, deciding under uncertainty, and what counts as (un)acceptable risk.   

Q1. What does coronavirus mean for the feasibility of social justice?

by Matthew Adams

In these bleak and disturbing times, it is worth remembering that COVID-19 may—at least ultimately—lead to some social good. For example, in the United States, many have speculated that COVID-19 will make the introduction of universal basic income (UBI) and universal health care more feasible. The degree to which such policies will in fact be more feasible is a tricky empirical question. I want to highlight some normative questions that this possibility raises.

Assume that a certain policy, such as UBI, would make the US more just.  Assume, too, that a public health crisis like COVID-19 makes it sufficiently feasible for UBI to be introduced – but that if such a crisis had not happened, it would not be sufficiently feasible. Should this raise any concerns?

One type of concern might be that if a policy couldn’t be implemented without a crisis, then it isn’t permissible to introduce it in the face of a crisis—at least if it goes beyond a temporary measure, necessary in the face of an emergency situation. The thought here seems to be that the introduction of a policy under such conditions somehow exploits the crisis to advance a particular political goal that, absent the crisis, couldn’t be advanced through a standard democratic procedure.

Different responses are possible. As a first thought, perhaps the introduction of certain policies is so important that it is justifiable to exploit the rare opportunity presented by crises to implement them. This response is perhaps plausible given the deeply unjust state of actual societies like the US. However, it does raise uncomfortable questions about whether alternative strategies like manipulating or corrupting ordinary democratic procedures would also be permissible if this was the only way of implementing policies that made the world more just.

Another possible response is that the language of exploitation is misleading. For crises like COVID-19 perform an important epistemic function: they reveal to people that the current system in place is untenable and needs urgent reform. Consequently, crises like COVID-19 might make certain policies—that could not have otherwise been implemented—feasible. But implementing such policies is not somehow exploiting the situation; rather, it is being responsive to the fact that people’s social outlook has been appropriately transformed by such crises.

Q2. What does coronavirus mean for the adoption of UBI?

by Diana Popescu

With Spain, the First Minister of Scotland, and the Pope advocating versions of universal basic income (UBI) in response to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is time to re-assess some of the standard arguments in favour of UBI. I’ll make three brief points.

Firstly, the current crisis validates Philippe van Parijs’s idea that jobs are a scarce resource. On this framing, UBI is viewed as a tax borne by those fortunate enough to find employment, with proceeds divided to all through a universal stipend. The accuracy of this framing is strengthened both by the current rise in unemployment and by the acute perception of jobs as lifelines taking us off our couches – rather than curtailments to our alleged never-ending enjoyment of said couches.

Secondly, the Covid-19 crisis validates the case for UBI as a response to radical uncertainty. Arguments usually emphasise future radical changes to labour brought on by automation (the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution). The Covid-19 crisis produced an unexpected radical disruption, bringing to a halt market sectors that seemed invincible and redefining the concept of an essential job. This strengthens the case for supplementing the existing safety net to include UBI, similar to the motivational basis for extending social welfare measures after 1945.

Finally, the current crisis turns UBI’s economic advantage of sidestepping the costs of judging deserving recipients into a normative one, at least in a European context. As the EU countries most affected by the crisis also tend to have more inefficient bureaucracies, a seemingly equal policy of creating a common pool of resources for all Member States would increase inequality within the EU due to unequal management capabilities. Therefore, the EU should bypass national bureaucracies and directly fund its citizens for the sake of greater equality among its constitutive states.

Q3. How does coronavirus help us to imagine a just society?

by Anca Gheaus 

It’s annoying to be told that unchosen hardship is a learning experience, but let me tell you anyway. The ruined travel plans. The working from home, with children always around. The need to do, hands-on, the shopping, cleaning, cooking, laundry and of course childminding. The constant awareness of what’s going on around the world, and in particular of the suffering and deaths. The heightened interest in political debate and the renewed recognition of how each individual’s wellbeing depends on everybody else’s. There are so many ways in which everyday life for the middle classes has changed. Some of these changes take us closer to understanding what it would mean to live in a just society. Not all of the changes, of course – and not the ones that maybe hit us the hardest; a just society would be one of egalitarian sociability, not of social isolation, of more communal childrearing, not of homeschooling.

But other changes forced on us by the health crisis bring home what it would be like to live in a truly egalitarian world. People would earn more or less the same, so families would be under economic pressure to stop the outsourcing of homemaking and childminding. Just as we must do now, although in different circumstances. For reasons of both intra- and inter-generational justice—but mostly for the latter—the well-off would not be able to consume anything close to what they were before the crisis. In particular, we wouldn’t fly and, more generally, travel as much. We would do less shopping. We’d have to learn how to enjoy a more local and non-consumerist life.

Further, if the world was just, care work would be properly rewarded. This cannot happen without first appreciating its value and hardships; today, men in heterosexual couples who struggle to work from home cannot escape the tough realities of homemaking and childrearing. Surely, they finally get the idea?!

It is about learning the restrictions that we’d have to accept for the sake of justice, but also its attractions. We now have a chance to experience, first hand, the pleasures of a quieter and less polluted world in which we have time to pay a bit more attention to people. In the just world of my books, people would have access to the preconditions of enjoying personal relationship goods and, in particular, familial relationship goods – like common meals, and awareness of our need of each other.

And finally, the current conditions of life can help us prepare for future peaceful long-term cohabitation. In years to come, it will be so much easier to guide our children in their choice of a spouse with just one question: “Would you be all right locked down in a quarantine with that person?”

Q4. What does coronavirus mean for economic precarity?

by Lisa Herzog

The Corona crisis hits individuals and families very differently, and one of these lines of differentiation is economic precarity: how certain can you be that you’ll still have a job and an income in the coming weeks?

For some—recent graduates or those in between jobs—this is sheer bad luck. In previous recessions, this sort of unfortunate timing has been shown to have severe ramifications that follow people for the rest of their lives (see e.g. here). With the current crisis potentially being much deeper than a normal recession, these questions become more urgent.

But there are also those whose precarity results from the way labor markets are structured. For example, are they employed at-will or do they have employment protection? Are their contracts permanent or temporary, with an informal promise for renewal, but which might be broken in a crisis such as the current one? Different countries have taken different paths in this respect, and the Corona crisis brings the cruelty of some practices into full light.

In the post-Corona reconstruction of the economy, such artificial forms of economic precarity need to be addressed. It is certainly no accident that those countries that have better labor protection, such as Denmark and Germany, are now also taking more steps to protect employees, small business owners, and others in economically precarious situations.

When I wrote about the revaluation of work during the crisis a few days ago, a commentator asked me whether I’m arguing for a new labor movement. The answer is an emphatic “yes” – we needed it a long time ago, and we need it all the more after the crisis! Such a movement should focus on employee rights, but also on support for democratically run companies, such as cooperatives. Such organizations are likely to be more resilient during crises, standing together in solidarity instead of simply cutting jobs. Among all the other advantages it has, democratic work is also a way of making economic systems more resilient with regard to crises – and that’s an investment worth making!

Q5. What does coronavirus mean for education? 

by Nicolás Brando 

By UNESCO statistics, 1.5 billion students are affected by school-closures due to coronavirus lockdowns. This is more than 90% of the worldwide student population. Despite many claiming that the world of education will move online, our current experience has shown the unpreparedness of educational systems to address the inequalities that come with this digital shift.

Our own position as teachers and parents has given us a glimpse at how school closures and digitalisation can create problems (despite of its benefits): our realisation that we needed to learn to utilize online learning tools to impart our classes; the burdens it imposes on our students and the variation in their capacity to deal with these changes; or the increased workload as full-time caretakers and substitute teachers for our own children at home. These issues, and the problematic inequalities they generate in our local setting are an important issue to address, and any just political system ought to account their impact on people’s lives.

These, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. The current lockdown not only showed us new inequalities in educational access, but it has brought already-present inequalities to the fore. Three are especially problematic: first, lack of access to resources required for online learning is and will be a core issue to be addressed to avoid the most vulnerable children being left behind. In China, both geography and socioeconomic status affect student’s access to online resources, making patent the fact that we are not ready to make a move in the direction of mass digitalisation of education. Moreover, many parents are unprepared and already overburdened to take up the role of facilitators of learning at homes. Unless we can ensure that the children who have most to lose are provided with real access to digital education, this shift will worsen already existing inequalities between the education of the wealthy and the least advantaged.

Second, schools do not only provide an education, they are also a haven –  sources of nutrition and protection. Lots of children depend on schools to have at least one healthy meal a day; school activities provide supervision, social contact and support to children who may not have it at home. School closures can have problematic effects on children’s mental and physical well-being. Ensuring access to these programmes, and to these supports, may be necessary for the current lockdown to not have long-term effects.

Finally, there is a gendered dimension. The aftermath of the Ebola crisis in 2014 showed that girls get the worst out of lockdowns. Girls’ vulnerability to abuse increases, many are compelled to work in exploitative circumstances to cover basic needs, others take up most of the household duties while at home, thus, having less time to prepare their course work, and adolescent pregnancy rises, with girls reporting that this was a direct result of not having the protective sphere of the school. Learning from how school closures during the Ebola pandemic affected girls can help us prevent history repeating itself.

Q6. What does coronavirus show us about the need for internet access?

by Merten Reglitz 

Human rights are best understood as protecting those things we need to live minimally decent lives. Even in ‘normal’ circumstances, the argument can be made for Internet access as a human right on the basis that it has become essential for exercising some of our most crucial rights: participation in governance, the right to associate with others,  and access to healthcare are three examples. In poor nations, even without a pandemic, having Internet access can be a matter of life and death.

Right now, though, lockdowns of public life in the many affluent societies show that Internet access is not a luxury, but a basic necessity – particularly in times of crisis. Many now depend on the Internet to continue their work. Students depend on the Internet to continue their education. Some of the most vulnerable depend on online grocery orders to be able to self-isolate. And for some, the Internet might provide the only possibility to say farewell to their dying family members. All of these are necessary for leading a minimally good life. We have human rights to work, to education, to associate with others, and to food and drink. For many right now, the only way they can at least partly realise these rights is online. Moreover, the opportunities for diversion that the Internet offers can reduce stress for those self-isolating and thus make the lockdown more bearable. This helps to reduce the pressure on health care systems thus helping to protect everyone’s human right to (adequate) health care.

Internet access is not a cure-all. Many jobs must be done in-person, online teaching cannot replace classroom interactions, and Skype calls are not the same as meeting our family and friends face-to-face. But many of the opportunities that Internet access offers will remain important once the lockdowns end. Having the opportunity to work from home, to socialise, to pursue education and exercise political freedoms are always valuable. Public authorities should therefore recognise a human right to Internet access. They should ensure basic access for everyone at all times (including those unable to afford it) and teach basic online skills (for example as part of school curricula and in further education colleges). The acknowledgment of this right would make our societies more inclusive, and would reduce the impact of future social and economic disruptions for everyone.

Large-scale crises are often opportunities to institute societal change. The current emergency offers the chance to recognise that Internet access is not merely something nice to have, but something everyone requires to live a decent life in our digital age.

Q7. What does coronavirus show us about how to fight climate change?

by Christian Baatz and Julia Hermann

Looking at the current pandemic in relation to climate change doesn’t just demonstrate the inadequacy of the human reaction to climate change. It also shows that measures fostering low-carbon societies are more feasible than often assumed.

There are important differences between the current pandemic and climate change. For one, regarding the former, within a year most harms and risks will be borne out and vaccinations will probably prevent a similar outbreak in the future (at least one caused by SARS-CoV-2). For another, although the threat posed by climate change is much greater than the one posed by the coronavirus, it is the latter threat that prompted drastic political measures. Yet there are also surprising similarities.

First, in both cases, those who caused the crisis are not those most vulnerable to it. While the mobility of the world’s middle- and upper-class people spread the virus around the world, the poor and marginalized are disproportionally affected everywhere. For them, social distancing is much more difficult (if not impossible), health care provision is much worse (or close to non-existent), and there is no safety net. A case in point are favelas in Brazil. Second, in both cases, early warnings were ignored, dismissed or supressed. For instance, in 2012 a report issued by the German government concluded that the health care system could easily be overwhelmed by a virus pandemic. A key explanatory reason, and the third similarity, is the time-lag between cause (infections/emissions) and effect (serious illness/climatic impacts). Too many governments implemented COVID-19 countermeasures reluctantly, only acting seriously when it was (almost) too late.

These similarities are concerning. Climate change threatens few of us today, but its greatest risks are to people in the future, making global and intergenerational “buck-passing” even more tempting. Yet there are also grounds for hope. The corona crisis shows how important it is to listen to scientific experts instead of populist politicians. The fact that some rather drastic changes in human behaviour are now taking place might make it easier to conceive of radical changes to resist climate change. “Things that were supposed to be unstoppable stopped, and things that were supposed to be impossible […] have already happened”. We are now experiencing what it is like if business meetings and conferences take place online, and holidays are spent at home. More sustainable alternatives to the pre-Corona Western way of life are taking shape. Moreover, people are noticing an improvement of their natural environment, which might motivate them to demand stronger efforts in moving towards low-pollution, low-carbon mobility systems, and to adapt their own lifestyle accordingly.

The corona crisis is changing our perception of what is possible. Citizens are willing to change their behavior significantly. Now it’s time to realise that climate change is an even greater threat, and to start responding to it appropriately.


Q8. What does coronavirus show us about how to make decisions under uncertainty?

by Anh Le

Technological breakthroughs and constant scientific achievements have perhaps given us a false sense of invincibility. Despite repeated warnings from scientists that a pandemic similar to the one we are seeing now was a matter of when not if, European countries and the United States, in particular, have been overwhelmed. In the UK, predicted to be the worst-hit European nation, government officials and key policymakers have repeatedly argued that their response is informed by ‘the available scientific evidence at the time’. When the UK switched from a strategy of mitigation to suppression, for instance, it was said to be based on a paper published by a team of epidemiologists at UCL. But is this answer good enough? When facing an irreversible and catastrophic threat similar to the Corona pandemic, should a lack of scientific understanding be the basis for limited response or inaction? If not, what should be done as instead?

The precautionary principle (PP) offers a solution when agents face severe epistemic uncertainties regarding a threat. PP is a risk-aversion strategy, according to which a lack of scientific certainty regarding threat should not undermine efforts to cope or mitigate the effects of said threat. As a moral principle, PP takes a form of negative consequentialism. Here, the aim is harm reduction rather than maximising good consequences; the right thing to do is that which reduces the greatest amount of harm.

PP appeals to policymakers because it offers a solution to decision making when not much is known about the threat. Many countries have adopted PP in dealing with the current pandemic. Vietnam and New Zealand, for instance, have moved quickly in quarantining suspected cases and even quarantining entire streets at a time when the threat-level was not particularly severe. Vietnam, at the time of writing, has reported no deaths and only over 200 confirmed cases despite being located next to China and with a population of 90 million. Similarly, New Zealand has reported falling number of cases despite earlier fears that the pandemic would overwhelm its healthcare system.

It is clear that PP can offer invaluable guidance to policymakers in a world where certainty is increasingly elusive.

Q9. What does coronavirus mean for how we should view (un)acceptable risk?

by Viktor Ivanković

At a recent press briefing, Donald Trump firmly opposed a prolonged state of dormancy for the US in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. To argue for his points, Trump compared the threat of COVID-19 with that of driving a car. Much like we don’t give up on driving despite its considerable death toll, the argument went, so we shouldn’t close down a country because of a contagion.

There are, of course, significant differences between the nature of these threats to public health and how societies aim to mitigate them. Yet, the analogy does point to an uncomfortable truth – that societies often weigh between the expected death toll of an activity and the benefit this activity produces. In virtually all societies of the world, driving is deemed an acceptable risk, due to its obvious benefits. So why don’t we accept the risk of keeping movement unrestricted during the COVID-19 outbreak?

It could perhaps be the case that, given unrestricted movement, the harms of COVID-19 would be significantly greater than that of road accidents in the long run. But this is not easy to calculate: we don’t know exactly how many people COVID-19 would kill in the absence of quarantine, nor can we tell whether to expect new outbreaks in the future. We are more certain about the death toll of road accidents, which is around 1.35 million a year according to WHO. If the death toll from COVID-19 would not exceed this number, or if the costs of quarantine to social life and wellbeing would become even greater over time, then societies might become more compelled to relax their measures.

However, I want to point to a more certain moral difference. The burdens of risk entailed with driving are distributed in a more balanced way among the population than in the case of discontinuing quarantine. If we gave up on quarantine tomorrow, we would do so with full knowledge that the burden of the COVID-19 risks would be primarily taken up by the more vulnerable members of our societies, such as the elderly and the sick. On the other hand, the distribution of traffic risks is not strictly equal (young men are more likely to be killed than others), but it is not nearly as unequal as in the COVID-19 case, and it is less due to factors outside of the control of those who suffer. We should be a lot more hesitant to accept risk that will be borne on the backs of particular social groups.


If you’ve enjoyed this rundown, you might also be interested to read some of our other posts relating to coronavirus:


Which Option is Best for Me? A Values-Based Proposal for Behavioral Economists


Left Unity: An Interview with Marius Ostrowski


  1. Summer Lynn M

    Nothing mentioned about the injustice felt by students with special education needs or people with disabilities being cared for by the state.

  2. Very interesting interventions~ Just thought I’d let you know about a small typo: ‘sever’ should be ‘severe’

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