No More “Competitive Victimhood”

by Dr Alberto Giubilini

I suspect Guy de la Bédoyère and I might be more in agreement than his reply might suggest.

It would probably not be too helpful to engage in a point-by-point response to his criticism, pretty much for the same reason why he thinks my original article (in which I claimed that lockdown is unfair towards young generations) was not helpful: it creates an unnecessary contrast between groups – an indulgence in “competitive victimhood”, as he says – when in fact a strong case can be made that every age group has been negatively affected by lockdown.

I agree it might not be helpful to create divisions across age groups when we all want the same, reasonable thing: a comprehensive argument as to why lockdown should be lifted.

My aim was not to be helpful in this sense, to be honest. It was just to highlight one aspect around intergenerational justice that I think is too often overlooked: lockdown is unfair towards the young.

What de la Bédoyère brings are additional reasons why lockdown should be lifted, but these are not related to unfairness. They are about the burdens on the elderly and how they have been denied their freedom. His points and my points are perfectly consistent, as I see it: that the young are unfairly burdened does not mean that the elderly are not burdened. But it means that the reasons for lifting lockdown are different if we look at the issue from the point of view of the young rather than of the elderly.

By no means did I want to deny that lockdown burdens the elderly as well, in the ways that Guy de la Bédoyère has emphasised. These include not having received timely medical treatment for other conditions that might have resulted in premature death or deterioration of health, social isolation and isolation from family members, the state of semi-imprisonment that many elderly find themselves in, and the consequent increase in anxiety that almost inevitably follows.

This is all true. But the point I wanted to make is that the elderly do get some benefit from this situation in terms of protection from COVID-19. The young do not, because COVID-19 is not as great a threat to them – with the exception of those with some of the pre-existing conditions.

Also, the burden on the young is arguably greater than on the elderly when it comes to the longer term costs of lockdown, such as those related to risks of job redundancy, economic recessions and education gaps.

So if the point of restrictions is to protect the NHS or to save lives, then it is not fair that the restrictions do not apply equally across age groups if the burdens could be distributed in a fairer way (that is, those who benefit the most, are burdened the most).

What de la Bédoyère brings are additional reasons why lockdown should be lifted, but these are not related to unfairness.

His point supports the more radical view that lockdown should be lifted for everyone, including the elderly. In principle I would agree, but at the moment it seems that the main justification that the Government offers for leaving restrictions in place is that the NHS is overburdened. If we want to reduce hospitalisations via heavy restrictions (which is in itself a questionable policy, given the evidence around the limited marginal benefits of lockdowns compared to milder restrictions ), fairness requires that these restrictions be selective, rather than indiscriminate.

Dr Alberto Giubilini is a Senior Research Fellow in Bioethics at Oxford University.

December 2022
Free Speech Union

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