PATRICIA and DON EDGAR. Who is expendable? Ethics in an age of a pandemic

In 1651, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, writing about the social contract, warned that without a strong central government man reverts to his natural state of self-interest and life is ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’. The West has rejected Hobbes’ philosophy and we have seen the erosion of strong central government across decades.

And the school girl with her school bag.

Our leaders have freed up trade, cut red tape, shed essential utilities to private hands, cut back research funding, denigrated science as a matter of opinion and equated the term ‘expert’ with wanker. Critical debate has been scorned as the snivelling of ‘the chardonnay set’; control has been ceded to global corporations and ‘the bottom line’ has become gospel.

The result is pervasive distrust of politicians, lack of confidence in institutions and the social system and a fractured Fourth Estate, undermined by both self-serving politicians crying ‘fake news’ to avoid transparency, and by the media itself which increasingly puts profit before principle.

Throw in the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a broken social system that has resulted in moral and ethical chaos, how well are our governments doing in leading and protecting their citizens from what has become a devastating threat to humanity?

Ironically, those doing best seem to be those countries where central Government controls are strongest. Time will tell if the chaotic international order will settle with a very different balance of power in place from that we have taken for granted.

There is extreme confusion in the western world, where public health and economic goals are being traded by our politicians and bureaucrats who seem far more concerned about their political future and partisan politics than the welfare of the public at large.

Times of crisis reveal how deeply our core values run. Our most central value in good times is to care for all those in need, generally agreeing that every person’s life is worth preserving. Wartime brings out our best and worst tendencies. Sacrifices for home and country vie with self-preservation and survival of the fittest; it is a ‘triage’ judgment about whose injuries are least likely to respond to treatment, a matter of allocating scarce resources, medical personnel and supplies. Nationalistic and ethnic allegiances do compete with the broader interests of humanity; we kill our enemies and protect our own. On a sinking ship, the ethical guideline was ‘women and children first’, with the ship’s captain last to leave. Pragmatism and utilitarianism have vied with altruism throughout history.

Now, with the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19, we face a new dilemma – of those infected, who to treat and who to let die?

If you’re over 60 watch out. And if you’re over 70 don’t expect a bed when the rush is on. A ‘good’ doctor should make the difficult decision to let us oldies go first. Expect to say goodbye to ‘your loved ones’, asserted the 55-year-old gung-ho Boris Johnson at the outset. Now look at the twit! He, who boasted proudly to a journalist after visiting a hospital, ‘I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know’. Three of the four most important figures in the UK’s fight against the COVID-19 are now infected – the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary and the Chief Medical Officer.

President Trump, worried about his electoral prospects in November, because he can’t get out of the White House to whip up the crowds, figures 1-2% of the population dead is neither here nor there. Locking down is un-American. He wants to ‘pack the churches by Easter’. That ‘would be a beautiful thing’. Trump’s health advisors are clearly struggling to shut up the genius who knows everything about everything.

Our leader, Scotty from marketing, a more compassionate man, is wearing out his pants kneeling on the floor, praying to the same God who brought us this pestilence. He favors an incremental approach. No ‘Go fast and go hard’ for him. So as late as last Friday night 33 health professionals, who had been stranded in South America, arrived in Sydney, evaded police, scattered through the domestic terminal and 27 flew to their homes (only 6 were captured for quarantine) .

These three leaders place themselves front-and-center, in what is being described in the Atlantic Monthly as ‘the Boomer Remover’.

Ageism and disregard for the elderly is back in style and it is harmful to all. Every disease takes its toll on older people but focusing on the aged is sending an ill-informed message to the young, contributing to a cavalier attitude as many young people put their lives at risk believing they will simply catch a cold.

The young are not immune, not even infants. By Saturday 28th March, those aged 20-29 recorded the highest number of confirmed cases in Australia with more than 700 of that demographic group diagnosed with COVID-19, according to federal health figures.

In Italy and Spain, it may be the tendency to touch one another more, to kiss on the cheek, to gather more in public places, not just age, that accounts for a higher death rate. By mid-March the Italian data showed the highest mortality rate was for those in their 50s. Italian and South Korean men smoke more than women, yet in South Korea it is younger women, not older men, who are dying more often.

The messaging is both confusing and inhumane. We need to understand that we are all in this together, what affects one person anywhere affects us all everywhere. Social media is now on overdrive and a story circulating raises several relevant questions about our leaders and their priorities.

There is a plane with five passengers on board: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, the Pope and a 10-year-old schoolgirl. The plane is about to crash and there are only four parachutes. Trump leaps up first. ‘I’m the smartest man in the USA. In fact, I’m the smartest man in the world. I can fix everything. There are people dying who haven’t died before. Not me.’ He takes one and jumps. Boris asserts: ‘Sick or not sick, I’m needed to sort out Britain. I’m the Prime Minister and I have barely started.’ He takes one and jumps. The Pope looks sadly at the two females he is leaving behind. ‘I’m so sorry, but the world needs the Catholic Church. It’s stuffed up and I haven’t finished sorting it out’. He takes one and jumps. Angela turns to the young girl and says. ‘You can have the last parachute. I have lived much of my life and yours is only just starting’. The girl replies, ‘Don’t worry, there are two parachutes left, the smartest man in the world took my school bag.’

Now how can we pull this off?

Patricia Edgar and Don Edgar are sociologists


Patricia Edgar is an educator. She was the architect of the Australian Children’s Television Standards, the founder of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and the World Summit on Media for Children Foundation.

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5 Responses to PATRICIA and DON EDGAR. Who is expendable? Ethics in an age of a pandemic

  1. Allan Kessing says:

    Anyone in the 60s who went on the hippie trail to India, especially travelling from Europe noticed on passing Istanbul that ritual cleanliness became more & more strict, no touching of strangers and greetings even of friends by touching one’s self, usually heart, only culminating in multi-religious India with the hands together gesture, anjali (usually misnamed “namaste” by callow westerners).
    The over use & abuse of the flood of dumped, out of date and superseded antibiotics throughout the Third World in the last half of the 20thC has led to many resistant strains of TB and other, long forgotten diseases.
    Now there is a new kid of the block and the only defense is social isolation.
    Yay for the 21stC.

  2. Evan Hadkins says:

    Yes, well, a strong central government (say strong enough to determine the level of government benefits to the employed) can make life poor and nasty.

  3. michael lacey says:

    The hunger games!
    Panem is a country built on extreme class divisions. The districts are kept from contacting one another, and each is forced into a particular industry, thus limiting the social mobility of those within the district. Class is a strong tool used by the capitalists to keep its citizens distant from one another, hence limiting the chances of another rebellion.

    Science fiction is closer to reality than you think!

  4. Paul Malone says:

    “Our most central value in good times is to care for all those in need, generally agreeing that every person’s life is worth preserving,” you tell us.

    Well you can speak for yourselves. You certainly don’t speak for me and I doubt if you speak for most others in society. Do you really believe that given a choice between their sick and elderly dying father, and their sick and dying child, most parents would give them equal time and care? Most people know the proper order of death.

    Yes you are right in saying that the young are not immune from this disease. But what is most relevant is that it is mostly a killer of the sick and aged. In Australia we have had 16 deaths from Covid 19 – all people over seventy, the last four consisted of two over seventies who had been admitted to hospital with cancer and a 75 year old and an 80 year old. Of the 16 overall, one was 95 years old. How much longer do you believe this woman would have lived? We should be much more worried about diseases that target the young.

  5. Teow Loon Ti says:


    May I add that ethics are culturally determined. I remember a Japanese friend of mine who said that he was a school child when WWII ended. He looked forward to going to school because of the good school lunch, at a time when there was a dire shortage of food in every household. The Japanese leaders decided at a time of dire food shortage, that the best food should go to the schools to ensure the well-being and survival of the next generation. Whether this is right or wrong will depend on the cultural underpinning of the reader.

    There are a number of practices in Western democracies with underlying Christian values that I find paradoxical. The Ten Commandments state clearly that “Thou Shall Not Kill”. Is it all right to don a uniform and go out there to kill the enemy, especially on ideologial grounds? Why is it that in normal times, old people suffering from painful health problems are kept alive with palliative care, and not given the option of voluntary euthenesia to end their suffering, yet when the push comes to the shove, such as when a pandemic strikes, they come last?

    Why is it that people suffering and dying from a disease in the country of origin are ascribed blame by politicians instead of being extended sympathy? There are innumerable diseases originating from all around the world. Do the countries from where they originate have to bear the burden of blame forever? Ebola and HIV were said to originate from Africa (Congo?), H1N1 from Mexico and the 1918 flue from Spain. Enlightened views seem to be abandoned by a number of our present leaders in favour of populist views. One of the greatest movements that came out of Europe was the Enlightenment in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Yet we elect people with Medievial views to be our leaders because their politics appeal to our primordial instincts. Is it about time to reexamine our basic values?


    Teow Loon Ti

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