COVID-19 Q&A: Daniel Weinstock on ethics, social distancing and reopening elementary schools

"As necessary as the limitations are right now, we have to make sure that we are vigilant enough to take our liberties back when we cease to represent risks to one another."

In the first of a series of interviews with McGill experts on COVID-19 issues, Daniel Weinstock discusses individual rights versus communal good during the pandemic. He also comments on the provincial government’s recent decision to reopen Quebec elementary schools.

Professor Weinstock was appointed Director of the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy in 2013, and named a James McGill Professorship in 2014. He has been an active participant in public policy in Québec, having been a member from 1997 to 1999 of a Ministry of Education working group on religion in public schools, and from 2003 to 2008, the founding director of Quebec’s Public Health Ethics Committee.

At this point in the pandemic, is social distancing a moral imperative?

First, I think we should use the term “physical distancing.” But yes, I think it is at last for the short term. We need somewhere on the order of 80 per cent compliance with distancing measures in order to achieve real, measurable effects as far as reducing the spread of the virus. Those who rationalize their non-compliance with the thought that they can engage in a bit of non-distancing as long as others are complying are engaging in “free riding.” If everyone thinks and acts like that, we fall beneath the required level and everyone loses.

Obviously, this cannot be a permanent situation, but in the short term, to get us out of the acute phase, we have to comply.

A Quebec lawyer is suing the Quebec government for violating rights during COVID-19 crisis. Are the current social distancing measures restricting civil liberties to an extent that is acceptable and/or ethical?

The particularity of a virus pandemic is that we are all threats to one another. The standard liberal position on liberty is that we should be free to act as we choose as long as we do not harm others. The problem is that in a pandemic involving a highly infectious pathogen we all pose grave risks to one another unless we comply with distancing measures. I think it is reasonable at this stage in the pandemic to limit freedoms proportionately.

I think we may be going overboard in some respects, for example in the case of jurisdictions that have banned access to green spaces, but that is mostly because it makes it harder for us to socially distance when we are confined to narrow spaces like sidewalks. But this is a policy issue, rather than a rights issue. I don’t think the lawyer has much of a leg to stand on at this point.

The Quebec government has announced a return for students to elementary schools in May which isn’t mandatory. Given the emphasis that has been placed on physical distancing in preceding days and weeks, many parents are feeling conflicted about the prospect of sending their children back to school at this point. How does one go about assessing this change in strategy and making the best decision for their family? 

Daniel Weinstock

The strategy is in line with the government’s desire to restart the economy gradually. It is also premised on evidence that suggests that smaller children get less sick than older children and adults do, and also that they are not efficient vectors of transmission. Note that both of these assumptions are the object of live controversy among scientists (as is much else about the novel coronavirus).

Two observations. First, schools are going to have to function quite differently from what children and parents are used to. We will have to reorganize them in order to minimize contact between children, and between children and their adult caregivers. I worry that the government has not provided schools with enough time to think through and implement the required changes in the organization of space and time within schools, playgrounds, etc.

Second, the government has made clear that at least in May and June, parents will not be required to send their kids to school. But if it is not mandatory, is it really school, or just glorified child care? After all, if some kids are allowed not to attend (and I think it is morally essential that parents have the opt-out) then schools would have to abstain from providing the children with content, lest kids who will only be going back in the Fall fall behind. But then it seems like this is not really school at all.

As restrictions and lockdowns drag on, some people are pushing for them to be loosened. Some people argue that, because the majority of people who are hardest hit by the virus are the elderly or people with pre-existing medical conditions, there is an almost naturalistic force at work here. “People die all the time,” they say. How do we counter that reasoning?

We need to cultivate our “moral capital” by making sure that we are always taking into account the vulnerable among us when we make policy. Older people seem to be the most vulnerable sub-group, but in other sets of circumstances that might not be the case. Saleema Nawaz in her uncannily prescient novel imagines a virus that makes children more vulnerable. Vulnerability, and not any fixed criterion like age, should always be something that we keep an eye on in making ethical policy.

The problem with the pandemic is that all the policy responses involve trade-offs among the health needs of different categories of vulnerable persons, both domestically and globally. We are in the domain of tragic choices. But we do not address those tragic choices ethically if we a priori consign some category of vulnerable persons to the margins of our decision-making.

What is the general ‘etiquette’ that people should be following when practicing social distancing measures?

Do what public health authorities enjoin us to do (wash hands, keep two-meter distance, cough into elbow or tissue, wear mask in public) – but try to smile and acknowledge people in other ways so that it is “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing.”

How is the pandemic affecting trust between individuals when social distancing?

That is a huge worry. I fear that we are training our children to see others as threats. If we develop a vaccine and thus achieve immunity, we will have to re-learn all sorts of very natural social reflexes. If we don’t, I worry that our way of relating to one another might be forever changed.

Following the end of social distancing measures and potentially the return to our ‘normal’ routines, what could be some of the consequences on civil liberties?

They will be whatever we allow them to be. I have recommended the creation of an independent committee tasked with monitoring the limitations to our civil liberties, and the ramping down of those limitations as they cease to be necessary over time. As necessary as the limitations are right now, we have to make sure that we are vigilant enough to take our liberties back when we cease to represent risks to one another.

Are you seeing behaviours or concerns in other countries (especially those, like Germany, that are a bit ahead of Canada in terms of starting to loosen restrictions) that might be germane to the Canadian context? Are there specific things you are watching for?

We have the benefit of finding ourselves at or close to the “tail” of the spread of the virus. The rest of the world represents something like a set of natural experiments for us. We should be watching closely as different ways of deconfining are attempted in different jurisdictions.

McGill has an extensive list of experts on a wide range of issues related to COVID-19. Consult the list.