Fairness not the ultimate virtue in a pandemic

What is best for everyone often has to come at the expense of a few

Outdoor diners in Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Outdoor diners in Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Plans to limit indoor dining to those who can prove their fully-vaccinated status have caused quite a ruckus. Having given up so much to protect the health of the older and more vulnerable, the youngest are last in line to get their old lives back. “It’s unfair,” Tánaiste Leo Varadkar concluded. And maybe he is right. But so what?

The general appeal to fairness has proven itself to be an indefatigable instinct throughout the pandemic, whether it be about vaccines or restrictions or rule-breaking. But it isn’t always a sound one.

The young and unvaccinated have sacrificed the most over the past year, so the argument goes, and now vaccine passports are just another example of the vast intergenerational injustice that has captured this country. Intergenerational injustice is certainly a concern, quite a pressing one actually. But in a pandemic fairness is not the ultimate virtue, nor should it be the organising principle when it comes to policymaking. In fact, appealing to it as an unquestionable and incontrovertible value begins to look not just petulant but rather flimsy.

Minor grievance

Practically speaking, it may feel unjust to see those who you’ve protected with lockdowns and social distancing enjoy benefits you’ve been denied. But it is a minor grievance at best. It would be far worse to see the hospitality sector suffer further blows, with even more businesses forced to close, while we wait for everyone to be vaccinated before allowing indoor reopening. Or the alternative, letting cases spiral and sending the whole country into another lockdown by allowing indoor reopening for everyone no matter their vaccination status. Both outcomes would be catastrophic, but seem perfectly defensible in the name of fairness.

And this is the problem with prioritising this woolly (and childish) notion: it quickly becomes a race to the bottom. Fairness is the lowest common denominator that dictates any progress out of this pandemic must not exceed the pace of the slowest ship in the convoy. It tells us no one can reap the benefits of one thing until everyone can. The principle that seems to have eluded many peddlers of the “it’s not fair” discourse is that what is best for everyone often has to come at the expense of a few.

And this is a problem politicians have long had to face: where are those boundaries? How many disadvantages can some incur for the benefit of the collective? And how serious are the disadvantages we can tolerate? Complex questions elude simple answers, but it seems the Cabinet may be able to settle on one here. Vaccine passports are a sensible – if irritating – compromise to keep cases relatively low and the economy moving. As far as societal disadvantages go, waiting slightly longer than most to get back to indoor dining is a minor one.

Though plenty of politics is electioneering and sniping opposition, fire-fighting and crisis PR, these kinds of questions are universal to all leaders in liberal democracies. And in the middle of a pandemic it is a far higher-stakes and more demanding mode of thinking than deciding the Cabinet has personally failed the unvaccinated simply because they can’t go out for dinner (yet).

Abject myopia

So it becomes harder and harder to avoid the conclusion that the gripe with vaccine passports would be better rendered: I don’t like this because it isn’t organised directly in my favour. Dressing up this abject myopia in the language of justice might make the cause feel lofty. But it undermines itself rather quickly. And the “it’s not fair” mantra reveals itself to be an inherently individualistic notion, utterly antithetical to the communitarian project of pandemic management.

The impulse to understand every policy through the lens of how just it personally feels begins to corrupt all basic sense, and it is one we should seek to temper. But fairness does matter. The world should be equitable and we should want to work out how we get there. Who will take on the burden of State debt? There is no justice in it coming down solely to the youngest. How do we fix the housing crisis? The knowledge that home ownership is a distant fantasy for so many is evidence of the social contract crumbling away in real time. How do the fit and healthy care for the most vulnerable? What do we owe one another? When we talk about fairness this is what should be on our minds.

Perhaps the post-pandemic world is the perfect time to rebuild the long-broken social contract. The financial crash and ensuing housing crises deepened intergenerational inequality and disabused millions of the notion that fairness underpins society. As coronavirus has laid those ills bare it has also forced us and our legislators to consider how to resolve them with renewed urgency. It is the least likeable silver-lining conceivable, but it may prove to be an important one nonetheless.

As politicians deal with questions about how to make society work to everyone’s mutual benefit, perhaps we needn’t waste our time chastising them for vaccine passports. It is not the injustice of the ages. In fact, it is hardly an injustice at all.

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