The precautionary principle (a.k.a. “just in case”) has driven the global response to Covid from the get-go. Just in case plexiglass barriers help stop the spread. Just in case the park swings harbor the virus. It’s a policy approach that dates back to the 1970s, when politicians invoked the German principle of Vorsorge — literally, “pre-concern” — to justify tougher environmental measures.
The phrase “abundance of caution” captures the precautionary principle in a more literary way. It has a lofty sound to it, connoting wisdom and restraint. The locution exploded in popularity in the spring of 2020 and has since become a go-to apology for Covid restrictions. “Out of an abundance of caution,” a Toronto school closed for a week after an itinerant staff member tested positive. “Out of an abundance of caution,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised people with Covid to keep distance from their pets. “Out of abundance of caution,” Singapore required quarantine for incoming travelers who had antibodies after recovering from Covid, on the chance they were infected with a new variant. “Out of an abundance of caution,” the Biden administration issued new travel bans in response to the Omicron variant.
It’s far past time we ask ourselves when abundance really means excess, when our precautionary measures against Covid have gone too far, when we have ignored the costs and lost all sense of proportionality.
On the face of it, an abundance of caution makes perfect sense. When the stakes are high, you don’t want to roll the dice. But extreme caution comes at a cost. In the case of Covid, the global shutdowns that flowed from the precautionary principle left a trail of missed cancer surgeries, lost livelihoods, and mental health struggles. Some of our youngest people, lacking the tools to navigate this strange new world, have tried to take their own lives, many more than in normal times. As for the old people we were supposed to be protecting the most, U.K. oral historian Tessa Dunlop, who talks to old women for a living, concluded that the restrictions dehumanized them “to the point that many no longer wanted to live.” In essence, we robbed Peter in the hope of paying Paul.
It should have been socially acceptable to debate the merits of these tradeoffs, with nuance and without censure. But that is not what happened. Early in the pandemic, an unspoken rule — thou shalt not question the costs — sprang up and stifled discourse. People who broke the rule faced a wall of opprobrium from the Twitter mob, putting their professional and social status in jeopardy. Amid accusations of selfishness and wanting people to die, it became impossible to carry on a rational conversation about weighing the costs of extreme caution against its benefits.
Enough time has gone by since that otherworldly spring of 2020 that we should now be able to move past the tribalism and have that conversation. With the benefit of hindsight, we need to confront the question: Did we take caution too far?
Zeb Jamrozik, an infectious-disease ethicist in Australia, maintains that we did. The global response to Covid, he told me in a video interview, has been “an abuse of the precautionary principle. People used the principle to justify shutting down the world, without fully considering the dangers of doing that. It’s an irony of sorts.”
Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford, echoes the sentiment in an article about the “catastrophic misapplication of the precautionary principle” during the pandemic. In his view, the principle should consider the downside of a policy “with the same degree of precaution … as is applied to mitigating the problem.” Instead, “the costs have been summarily ignored.”
And here’s the worst of it: the costs of excess caution can persist long after the initial danger has passed. As a case in point, the precautionary principle led the Japanese government to shut down most of its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima accident in 2011. In a paper called “Be Cautious with the Precautionary Principle,” three economists have argued that the policy increased electricity costs, reducing the amount of heating people could afford, which resulted in more deaths than from the actual accident. Reflecting on this research, Adam Thierer, a policy analyst at the Mercatus Center, concludes that “by defaulting public policies to super-cautious mode and curtailing important innovations, laws and regulations can actually make the world less safe.”
It’s no different with Covid: our knee-jerk caution may have downstream effects that persist after the virus has ceased to be a threat. The impact of travel and trade restrictions on food security and childhood vaccination in developing countries will likely reverberate for decades. And according to a paper published in Infectious Diseases Now in May 2021, prolonged shielding of a population from normal exposure to pathogens could make future epidemics more likely.
Caution makes sense except when it doesn’t. While a pandemic gives us only bad choices, we must make every effort to determine and deploy the least bad one — what David Katz, a doctor specializing in preventive medicine, calls “total harm minimization.”
We should also take a hard look at the benefit side of the lockdown ledger. Sold to us as a life-saving strategy, lockdowns merit an unflinching post-mortem. We must ask ourselves to what extent lockdowns actually did save lives — not compared to “letting it rip,” but to less disruptive mitigation paths we might have followed, like the targeted-protection approach some experts were counseling. Douglas Allen, an economics professor at Simon Fraser University, analyzed over a hundred studies on the costs and benefits of lockdowns, and concluding that they “have had, at best, a marginal effect on the number of Covid-19 deaths.”
We must also guard against using the precautionary principle for political cover, as happened in Denmark in the early months of the pandemic. As revealed in emails leaked to the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladed, newer calculations that pegged the coronavirus reproduction rate at 2.1, lower than the previously estimated 2.6, were kept under wraps because they were “not desired politically.”
Finally, we must understand when to apply the precautionary principle and when to move on from it. In keeping with the 1992 Rio Declaration, we should reserve the principle for circumstances in which two conditions prevail: a threat of serious or irreversible damage coupled with a lack of scientific certainty. These conditions existed in the early weeks of the pandemic. But we’re no longer on the Titanic. We need to put caution on the scale and weigh up its costs.
Used too liberally, the precautionary principle can keep us stuck in a state of extreme risk-aversion, leading to cumbersome policies that weigh down our lives. To get to the good parts of life, we need to accept some risk. We all seem to understand this in many areas of life. We do not, for instance, set a national speed limit at 30 miles per hour, despite the numerous lives we could save by doing so. Somewhere along the way, our society decided that the benefits of driving at faster speeds — family road trips, manageable commutes, visits to friends who live far away, adventure in remote places — balanced the risks. It’s called proportionality, and it’s how we have always lived our lives.
In ethics, the proportionality principle dictates that “responses should be proportional to the good that can be achieved and the harm that may be caused,” as Kate Jackson-Meyer from Boston College has put it. The principle pushes us to stretch our ethical muscles beyond the impulse to keep everyone as safe as possible this minute. It insists that we put the costs of an intervention under a microscope.
The precautionary principle doesn’t come with such checks and balances. On the contrary, it tends to perpetuate itself and acquire a life of its own, especially when co-opted by the machinery of government. In his book Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito describes the political condition that can emerge: “Instead of adapting the protection to the actual level of risk, it tends to adapt the perception of risk to the growing need for protection — making protection itself one of the major risks.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the risks of extreme protection: lost businesses, lost livelihoods, lost graduations, lost loves, lost goodbyes; the loss of personal agency over life’s most intimate and meaningful moments; the loss, quite possibly, of our cherished principles of liberal democracy. A recent report by International IDEA, a democracy advocacy organization, concluded that many countries had become more authoritarian as they took steps to contain the pandemic.
This is not at all to ignore the staggering loss of life from Covid-19. Pandemics are awful, irrespective of how we manage them. But if we keep a steady focus on proportionality, we can make them a little less awful overall.
Two years into this pandemic, it is high time we learn from our mistakes. We must ask ourselves, at every step, whether our response matches or exceeds the threat. We must have full permission to discuss costs and benefits out loud, without fear of censure. When we invoke the precautionary principle, it must be with discretion and deliberation — with great caution, as it were.
The New Atlantis is building a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.
Danger: Caution Ahead