The uncertainty of Covid in the moral maze

Should our leaders be blamed for their pandemic misjudgments? Can we even recognise what these are?

Michael Buerk, chairing another Moral Maze

On BBC Radio’s Moral Maze last week, we once again tackled the dilemmas thrown up by the pandemic. Being the Maze, we try to extract from a current event an underlying moral issue on which to test out the arguments, and on this occasion it was how to deal with uncertainty.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been — to put it mildly — a learning experience. There’s still much about this virus that isn’t understood, and how much more so that was at the beginning of the crisis. Moreover, the question of how to deal with it has been fiendishly complex on all sides. There are so many “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” (as a certain American defence official once put it in a different world altogether), not to mention differences of interpretation about the effects of lockdowns or the likely statistical trajectory of the infection rate. So is it justified to blame anyone for getting these judgments wrong? To put it another way, if we do so aren’t we just using the unfair 20:20 vision of hindsight?

Yet we admire leaders who have clarity of vision and aren’t paralysed by indecision. Then again, society is polarised because so many people are certain they are right; such moral certitude often has the effect of pandering to one group of people while alienating another. Should we leave judgment parked on the irreducible complexity of things? Or has the last trying year demonstrated the invaluable benefits of clarity and decisiveness?

My co-panellists were Anne McElvoy, Andrew Doyle and Mona Siddiqui. Our witnesses were Jonathan Calvert, editor of the Sunday Times Insight team; Lord Blunkett, the former Labour Cabinet minister; Dr Raghib Ali, senior clinical research associate at the MRC Epidemiology Unit, Cambridge university; and Quassim Cassam, professor of philosophy at Warwick university.

You can listen to the programme on the BBC website here.

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