Lockdowns and lockdown releases are not going to be ‘fair’

A common passtime during the lockdown, or during phases of its release was to point out some activity that has been permitted and compare it to another one that has not.  How ridiculous, we all laughed, demonically!  What incompetence the whole thing demonstrated!

There are many ways in which the government’s handling of the crisis has been catastrophically bad, but there being apparent instancies of unfairness and inconsistency in the lockdown is not one of them.

Lockdown law is not like normal law.  The point is to figure out what amount of activity the country can cope with in the sense of the test-trace-isolate capacity being there to counter the effects of the contacts and infections that whatever activity it is – going to pubs, playing cricket – generates.

It could be that as you release the lockdown, your test-trace capacity increases by x thousand contacts [that is contacts you can trace and follow secondary contacts, and isolate, with enough efficacy].  In which case the question for public policy is not what new consistent place can be found where we can redraw the boundary of permitted activities, but how can we ‘spend’ the budget of 1000 contacts.

The next re-drawing could take you to the point where you contemplate opening up pubs, but there are too many pubs to open all of them, so you ration how many, or who can go to them.

Rationing could be done by prioritizing the acticity for economic benefit;  or targeting the benefit at those in most need [perhaps those who were most affected by the lockdown in the first place].  So, playing cricket is low down the list.  Visiting isolated relatives is high up the list.

Fairness is not to be dismissed entirely, of course, because since we are socialized and perhaps even evolved to expect it, the likelihood that we comply with a regulation might well be a function of how fair it seems.  So it’s understandable that an actual lockdown policy would reflect some balance of fairness and rational public health contact allocation.

This is partly because states rely on consent to some extent to make sure that laws are sustained.  There are not enough resources to compel us to follow all or probably any laws.

Enforcement of the lockdown, in the teeth of an epidemic, will generate new trade-offs.

This involves making a public health decision analogous to the drawing of the on-paper lockdown regulations.  What regulations are actually going to prevail, after enforcement?  The authorities have a limited budget for enforcement, and they might find it is better spent [in the sense of preventing more potential infections] by targeting in ways that don’t reflect consistency or fairness [eg if no-one is allowed to party in groups, going after every potential group party].

So, when we try to take apart lockdown regulations, and how they are policed, ask not whether they are consistent or fair, but whether they represent a sensible way of prioritizing activities given that we can only afford to generate a certain number of contacts and convid19 infections.

[Added later]. I had some good comments after publishing this post.  One, from Dan Davies, noted that some activities that are perceived by some as virtuous and necessary – like going to church – are very ‘expensive’ in terms of consuming large amounts of the available capacity to suppress contacts.  [See, for example, the tale of the early outbreak in South Korea, traced to one particular church].  While others, deemed very low down on the hierarchy of needs – like young people hanging out in parks, drinking – are probably actually very ‘cheap’, in the sense of generating very few new infections.

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