COVID-19 mitigation is not Eugenics
Mitigation was a response to negligent containment policies
As we all shout angrily at a cacophony and become deafened by the collective noise of ourselves & mainstream media megaphones, it may be tempting to use more explosive words as narrative warheads to maximize the effect of our vocal ordinances. However, while I appreciate a diverse vocabulary and wouldn’t want to stop people from speaking authentically, I’m troubled by the use of “eugenics” when describing COVID mitigation policies.
Eugenics has a meaning that marries its literal definition with its colored (or, more accurately, its anti-colored) history. Strictly speaking, Eugenics is the study of how to rearrange the reproduction of humans to increase the frequency of desirable traits. Included in Eugenics is genocide, or the systematic killing, sterilizing, or cultural “re-education” of people with undesirable traits, thereby eliminating their traits from the gene pool.
Some people refer to COVID mitigation policies as “eugenics”. In fact, often “eugenics” is often used as just an adjective for policies one disagrees with. In other cases, “eugenics” is declared without justification - such as the recent New York Times article referring to the “casual eugenics” of COVID disproportionately killing people with diabetes, heart disease, and other pre-existing conditions.
If indeed there is anything like eugenics in COVID policies, it would be terrible. If, on the other hand, people are weaponizing “eugenics” as a literary warhead, such scorched earth tactics will polarize our deliberative process and, more importantly, cry “wolf” to desensitize people to the true horrors of eugenics.
COVID, like any other disease, is more likely to infect some people and, upon infection, is more likely to cause some people to die than others. HIV is well known to disproportionately target gay men & people in Africa. Sickle-cell anemia is found at a higher rate in people with African ancestry. Malignant melanoma is more likely in freckled people like me, and breast cancer is more likely in some people than others based on their BRCA gene and more. Diabetes occurs disproportionately in black & brown people in the US, heart disease is more common in people who suffer from obesity, obesity is more common in the South, and so on. Even car crashes are more likely to kill people who are 65 and older.
Every single cause of death disproportionately kills some people more than others, and thereby has a fingerprint, however subtle, on the human gene pool. In this background of mortality stratified across our intersecting ancestries, identities, sexualities, and more, one has to ask: why is COVID so different to warrant the use of “eugenics”?
There are many people arguing seriously that specific COVID-19 policies are eugenicist, including this person, this person, this person, and millions more on Twitter. The arguments vary, but the common theme of these arguments is that by “choosing to pursue natural herd immunity”, or “failing to protect” vulnerable populations, managers are causing medical harm that disproportionately kills people and therefore such choices or missing-policies are eugenics. Both claims are absurd, easily rejected without complex arguments, and it’s important we deconstruct them in order to balance out our pandemic ethics.
“Choosing” to pursue natural herd immunity
Eugenics requires human agency with the intent to alter the gene pool, and both arguments rely on converting a misfortunate natural disaster into the agency of a manager. “Choosing to pursue natural herd immunity” mistakenly assigns agency of a manager over whether or not a virus capable of infecting & reaching herd immunity exists. Nobody chose to release a virus.
It would be a crime against humanity if someone released a virus. It would absolutely be eugenicist if someone designed a virus to be particularly damaging to identifiable subpopulations and released that virus.
However, SARS-CoV-2 has no human agency that we are aware of. While there may have been a lab accident causing the virus to be released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (but, as of yet, there is no smoking-gun evidence for or against this hypothesis) such an accident would be best classified as negligence, not eugenics. By February 2020, containment of SARS-CoV-2, with its global distribution, asymptomatic cases and transmission with non-specific symptoms, was no longer possible without causing massive collateral damage. The world still tried to contain the virus, and caused massive collateral damage predictably sending 20 million poor people predominately in Africa & Asia into acute hunger, 100 million kids into multidimensional poverty, and more - and that’s just 2020.
Once the pandemic cat is out of the bag, the virus is best viewed as a natural disaster. While there can still be misbehavior and poor ethics in a natural disaster, such as shoving someone into a river of lava or tripping someone as they try to escape a building during an earthquake, by and large most actions in such catastrophic scenarios are best assessed ethically on the spectrum of cowardice and heroism, incompetence and competence, and other virtues that become important during a disaster. If one is unable to save lives, it doesn’t mean they are a coward or even they are incompetent - in some cases, saving lives is just not possible, and with a respiratory virus capable of asymptomatic transmission it’s arguable that avoiding natural herd immunity is just not possible. While some places like New Zealand did try to contain the virus until vaccines arrived, the aforementioned costs of containment policies were massive and would have been even larger had places like the US decided to lockdown as New Zealand or Singapore did. Furthermore, the use of state of emergency declarations in a manner that causes collateral damage, displacing harm from people elderly or diabetic Americans at risk of severe COVID to young & healthy people at risk of dying from suicide & overdose, or the poor people worldwide facing acute hunger, warrants serious consideration of the medical ethics of displacing harm.
Managers during COVID-19 implemented many policies, some were effective, and others were not. Nobody “chose” to pursue natural herd immunity inasmuch as some “accepted” that herd immunity was an inevitable - and tragic - consequence of this natural disaster which our contemporary tools could not stop without causing massive harm to other people not facing risks from the natural disaster. If the government threw one kid from Kansas into a volcano in order to save two more kids who lived on the volcanic island, the government’s actions could well be seen as criminal, since the government acted in a way that endangered someone who was otherwise not in danger. Such hard choices made in COVID-19, especially the equivalent of choosing to not throw the one kid into lava to save two more, are not remotely like “eugenics”, for the managers did not choose to start a natural disaster. They only varied in the degrees to which they accepted its consequences and attempted to mitigate the collateral damage, including collateral damage from their own well-intentioned actions.
“Failing to Protect” vulnerable populations
Again, imagine a volcano erupting on an island with an indigenous population. Imagine that, absent some heroic rescue, the indigenous population would be eradicated from the human gene pool.
One can imagine that a eugenicist could, in fact, capitalize on this convenient natural disaster. Suppose the eugenicist wanted this indigenous group to be removed from the gene pool, and that desire motivated their inaction, allowing the group to perish from Earth. I would argue that this extreme scenario could be considered eugenicist, but only because of the intent behind the inaction, and the deliberate desire to not protect people for the purpose of eradicating them from the gene pool.
I have yet to see any such example in COVID policies, and nowhere has genocidal intent been circumstantially or even remotely demonstrated in articles making this argument. Rather, the articles point out that the United States has a history of racism and ableism, of medical malpractices illuminating similarities between Nazism to Tuskegee, and that this virus is disproportionately killing BIPOC & disabled people and, because the authors believe our actions would be different if the race/ability of people at high risk of severe outcomes were reversed, the inaction is due to deeply rooted racism and ableism in the United States.
While this comes close to arguing intent at a societal level, it misses, again, the agents making decisions, their intentions, and the competing risks not mentioned. While the US has a long history of racism and COVID-19 is indisputably harmful to BIPOC communities, the global efforts to contain COVID-19 through lockdowns has caused millions of people in Africa & Asia, BIPOC non-Americans, to face acute hunger. One could flip their arguments to say - given the US has a long history of colonialism and imperialism, of prioritizing American lives over non-American lives, the choice to contain COVID-19 knowing full well such policies will lead to starvation of non-Americans is eugenicist.
However, both arguments would be wrong, because they fail to document that the mangers making decisions have genocidal intentions. I don’t believe that anyone arguing for COVID-19 containment wants to starve and thereby eradicate Africans from the human gene pool, and so I don’t believe containment policies, however unethical by displacing harm and worsening conditions for the world’s poorest people, are eugenicist. Conversely, the intentions behind COVID-19 mitigation policies were often stated outright: to mitigate damage from COVID-19 and reduce the collateral harm from our policies. Acceptance that SARS-CoV-2 is a pandemic is the first step towards rational management, and mitigation proponents accepted the pandemic earlier than containment proponents.
Containment policies were not “eugenicist” - they were incompetent & negligent
If one accepts that SARS-CoV-2 is a natural disaster, then the deaths - whether they are equitable or not - are absolutely tragic, and we must try to reduce deaths from the virus within reason. It’s easy to argue that it would be unreasonable to send 20 million people into starvation just to save 1 million US lives, and it looks as if the efforts to save lives from COVID-19 had not materially impacted mortality burden as the US and Europe, despite vastly different management strategies, have similar mortality rates from COVID-19, both of which are dwarfed by the magnitude of famine and poverty caused by containment policies.
Mitigation policies were rational triage decisions made by those intelligent enough to know how severing global trade networks - and subsidizing labor only within our borders - will harm excluded workers and those outside our borders who don’t have access to our welfare checks. Containment policies pursued by infectious disease epidemiologists were ignorant of the basic economics & public health informing how the poorest people in the world are fed day to day, and how socialization and economic opportunity can reduce suicides & overdoses. The world’s managers during COVID-19 had a duty to care not only for COVID-19 victims, but for every human being in the world, and containment policies were myopically focused on reducing COVID when a reasonable person would foresee how their actions would cause harm. As managers had a duty to care for all lives, and as reasonable people can & did foresee how managers’ actions would harm others, I believe COVID-19 containment policies were not just tragically incompetent, but borderline criminally negligent.
The excess deaths of young Americans from Kansas & beyond from suicide & overdoses were predictable consequences of containment policies, and we have people on record arguing these will be the consequences of containment policies, yet managers and COVID epidemiologists chose containment policies anyways, neglecting the anticipated harms beyond COVID. While less gruesome than sacrificing a kid from Kansas into a volcano to save a geriatric resident of the volcanic island, the reality of displaced harm, of the government intervening to trade lives, is incontrovertible, and the people hungry, poor, and dead are just as real.
There are many words we can use to describe policies we don’t like. Being picky & precise about the words we use can enable us to better debate pandemic ethics. COVID-19 mitigation policies were not eugenicist because nobody chose to release a virus and reasonable observes could anticipate that containment policies would harm people otherwise not at risk. In fact, rather than COVID-19 mitigation policies being unethical, containment policies appear to be negligent. The inequities of COVID mortality in the US were incurred regardless, but pursuit of incompetent policies caused additional and anticipated harm to excluded workers, poor people outside of America, and to young people in America seeing an astonishing rise in excess deaths from suicides & overdoses. Since all of these harms were anticipated by reasonable observers, and since collectively global managers - especially COVID epidemiologists - had a duty to care, the pursuit of containment policies was a gross mismanagement of a natural disaster, a mix of cowardice and incompetence that borders on negligence.