The “Collateral Damage” of the Lockdown

Now that the COVID-19 lockdown is finally lifting (at least in America)—now that we can look back on a chaotic year and assess policy decisions that were often made hastily, with inadequate information— what lessons can we learn?

Those lessons will be important to learn because although we can hope and pray that the worst of this particular disaster is behind us, there will be another epidemic, sooner or later. For that matter, even if we are spared from epidemics for a few years, even an ordinary seasonal flu will raise questions. Now that precedents have been set, should we close down schools and offices and stores and churches whenever an infectious disease looms?

Bishop Thomas Paprocki made a very useful contribution last September when he invoked the moral distinction between using ordinary and extraordinary means in medical treatment. As a public-health strategy, the lockdown was unquestionably an “extraordinary means.” Was it justified?

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I propose to use another standard of traditional Catholic moral reasoning, borrowing from the just-war tradition, and examine the issue of “proportionality”— or more specifically, the problem of collateral damage.

In warfare it is inevitable that, sadly, some innocent bystanders will be harmed. (This is one reason why the Church encourages a heavy presumption against military action.) If the harm to civilians is proportionate—that is, if it is minor in comparison with the military end achieved—then it is classified as “collateral damage,” which does not render the action unjust.

For instance: you bomb the enemy’s munitions dump, a proper military target by any standard. But when it explodes, the blast flattens several nearby homes. You may write off those homes as “collateral damage.” But rest assured that the families who lived in those homes will not easily forget the matter; for them, the destruction was anything but incidental.

With the advent of “smart weapons,” military leaders claim the ability to be more and more discriminating in choosing their targets. In theory, the result should be less collateral damage. But in practice, the proportion of civilian casualties has risen steadily in the past century. This unhappy fact suggests that military leaders may be too quick to justify the sort of tactics that will predictably involve massive collateral damage. (For an example, consider the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign in Iraq.)

Could the same criticism be leveled at the public officials who ordered draconian lockdown measures in response to the COVID-19 epidemic? I think so. The economic costs of the lockdown were surely foreseeable: the layoffs, the business closings, the unemployment, the shortages, the massive government spending to cover the yawning gap, and the inflation that will likely result. But the economic costs were not the only negative results of the lockdown, nor the only ones that were predictable.

No one intended that tens of thousands of elderly people would die alone, effectively imprisoned in nursing homes. No one intended to cause a spike in the rate of deaths by suicide, drug overdoses, and domestic violence. No one intended to let cancers and heart conditions go untreated because hospitals were not offering normal services. 

But can anyone really be surprised by the grim realities of these deaths? Just as 21st-century warfare has seen unprecedented levels of civilian casualties, so too in the COVID-19 epidemic the death and destruction attributable to policy decisions—caused not by the disease but by ill-considered responses—has been frighteningly high.

These human costs of the lockdown should not be blithely dismissed as collateral damage—as the price that we had to pay to combat the epidemic. Our government leaders deliberately chose the most aggressive public-health measures available. Their focus was on a single objective—containing the epidemic—and they did not pause to calculate the suffering that their own policies would create.

The traditional Catholic teaching on justice in warfare requires that two different conditions must be filled. First, jus ad bellum: there must be a just cause for military action. Next, jus in bello: the war must be waged by moral means. The use of force must be proportionate to the goals achieved. Even a laudable end does not justify the use of every possible means. When the COVID-19 epidemic broke out, public-health officials certainly had a just cause for action. But the justice of that cause should not have blinded them to the consequences of their policies.

And here the voice of the Catholic Church should have been heard, providing a proper moral framework for our public decision-making process. The Church should have been reminding government leaders that while the goal of preserving public health is important, it is not the only constituent of the common good. Mindful of the “preferential option for the poor,” the Church should have been protesting a lockdown that, in order to preserve the healthy and the affluent, neglected the needy—the elderly in nursing homes, the blue-collar workers who could not telecommute, the psychologically frail who needed friendly company, the young children cooped up in their homes. 

Above all, bearing in mind that spiritual health is more important than physical health, the Church could have seen the epidemic as an opportunity to help people see their mortal lives in the perspective of eternity, and she could have given a panicked society a reassuring message of hope.

Maybe next time.


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