4.1 The harm on economy
COVID-19 jeopardized the economic and physical health of citizens worldwide. Jobs were lost in millions, markets were shut, movements were restricted, hunger-induced deaths were in the increase, just as businesses folded. Towards the end of March 2020, about 3.3 million people filed unemployment claims in the USA alone, a number Margulies says is nearly five times the previous record, just as the number more than doubled the following week.15 According to the interim assessment report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic is indeed about the greatest threat to economy since the financial Emergency of 2008-2009. It notes that owing to lack of productivity and excessive expenditure invested in the treatment as well as rehabilitation of victims of COVID-19, many powerful countries of the world have faced a struggling economy with increasing inflation, unemployment, and loss of employment.16
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria placed a travel ban on 13 countries with high cases of the virus with over 1000 confirmed cases on the 18th of March 2020 with effect from 21 March 2020. The countries include the USA, United Kingdom, South Korea, Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, China, Spain, Netherland, Norway, Japan and Iran.Governments of nations have to step in to stem the tide. In the USA, for instance, an economic stimulus package worth 2.2 trillion dollars was approved. US President Trump even invoked the Defense Production Act to compel General Motors to make medical equipment, just as relief measures were introduced to ameliorate the suffering of the masses. In spite of all these efforts and measures, some observers think that they are not enough to cover both current and projected losses.17 COVID-19 has indeed devastated the global economy, causing unemployment, economic decline, poverty, and starvation. In the words of Emmanuel et al, “Economics and health interact: worsening economic conditions harm health, and a worsening pandemic harms the economy”.18
As expected, the measures put in place to contain COVID-19 inflicted some measure of suffering and frustration on the citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable population. Many businesses and industries as a result of the increasingly declining economy could no longer sustain payment of salaries to their employees and, as such, had no option than to lay off most of their workers. That businesses and organizations laid off workers due to their inability to pay salaries is another way of saying that COVID-19 brought embargo on employment. In economies like Nigeria and other African countries such as Ghana and Togo where the informal sector predominates, the mass of ordinary citizens who rely on a daily income were the worst hit. The result is that petty stealing, robbery, prostitution, poverty, and other hunger-induced disease conditions increased.
In a pandemic situation such as the world is experiencing currently, it is arguably the ethical responsibility of the state to ensure that health is maximized. Laudable as this observation appears to be, implementing it in a pandemic situation is challenging, given the notions of individual autonomy/liberty (construed in this context as individual good) and well-being (construed herein as common good). For instance, in combating the spread and menace of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, should the state adopt the rights or the well-being approach? Definitely, if a state is to adopt the rights approach, then most of the measures for containing the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing, mass quarantine, restrictions on movement, and so on, would not be permissible as they obviously violate the rights of individuals. But should the individual live so that the community may die or go extinct? Answering no! to this question implies a consent to the effect that the collective well-being of the members of a community should override the rights and aspirations of a single member, and that it is ethically permissible for the state to deploy any proactive measures aimed at ensuring that the collective welfare (in this case health) of members predominates. This dimension of reasoning justifies the sundry lockdown measures and social distancing policies put in place by governments of the world that are geared toward controlling the menace and spread of COVID-19.
While some or all of the drastic measures adopted by some countries in fighting the spread of COVID-19, including closure of markets and businesses as well as mass quarantine without prior palliative measures in place might be justified on utilitarian grounds or well-being theory, states need to be reminded that WHO’s Guidelines for Managing Ethical Issues in Infectious Disease Outbreaks states that “Any restrictions on freedom of movement, particularly those that are not voluntary, should be backed up with sufficient resources to ensure that those subjected to the restrictions do not experience undue burden.”19 Similarly, the Syracusa Principles while acknowledging occasions when some individual rights might be suspended for the state to achieve greater good, states that any of such restrictive measures should, in accordance with the law, pursue a legitimate aim, proportionate, and not arbitrary or discriminatory.20
In their own observation regarding the economic impact of COVID-19, Bonaccorsi et al. (2020) submit that the G20’s announcement of fiscal intervention to the tune of 8 trillion dollars and massive monetary measures was occasioned by the fact that lockdown measures have affected several production sectors, value chains, and trade exchanges, adding that the supply shock is triggering deep contractions of aggregate demand, thereby endangering socio-economic recovery.21 Put side by side with what appears to be my categorical support for the restrictive measures that government imposed to curb the harms in COVID-19 in the first part of this article, the foregoing observations as per the harms which COVID-19-induced national lockdown has inflicted on the economy should not be construed as my attempting to have it both ways. What is obvious from the expositions of both the harms in and of COVID-19 is that the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic and the Nigerian government’s resolve to combat it through the imposition of lockdown measures produced conflicting prima facie duties. On the one hand, the Nigerian government’s recognition of COVID-19 as a pandemic disease with a resolve not to allow it result in mass deaths of her citizens imposes on her a prima facie duty to protect her citizens from the deadly disease. On the other hand, the mere resolve by the Nigerian government to contain the harms of the disease by way of a national lockdown backed with emergency powers immediately imposes on the government another prima facie duty to adequately provision for her citizens (by way of palliative measures) during the period of the lockdown. These prima facie duties are, as Ross observes, self-evidently true.22
Should the Nigerian government secure her citizens against mass deaths, using any means she deems necessary, including ones that derogate on the citizens’ rights? Or, should she, in consideration of the gross economic and other consequential damages lockdown will subject the masses to, fail to impose it, thereby paving the way for mass deaths? These questions become necessary, given Ross’ position that when two prima facie duties conflict one has to be suspended, and the one so suspended ceases to be binding. In my own estimation, none of the approaches should be suspended. What is needed is to strike a balance by way of palliative measures before and after the lockdown measures have been declared. Seen thus, while the economic and other consequential harms of COVID-19 containment measures are regrettable, imposition of restrictive measures that can contain the spread and menace of the disease is an imperative as a way safeguarding the lives of the people.
4.2 The harm on education
Education is another sector that suffered the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 containment measures. In the wake of the pandemic outbreak, many countries, in compliance with the social distancing strategy of curtailing the spread of COVID-19, closed all educational institutions indefinitely. The closure has no doubt caused interruption and distortion in the regular academic calendar, students’ learning, internal assessment as well as public assessment for qualifications.23
The option left for the management of various educational institutions is to move online. Many schools have already started in this direction by moving their teaching and learning or assessment online. Much as moving teaching and assessment online may be an interesting idea and a good option in the face of a pandemic outbreak with social distancing as a precautionary measure, it raises the problematic issues of equality and discrimination. In some developing countries such as Nigeria, not all students are resident in internet-covered areas. Even if all of them reside in internet-covered areas, there is still the question of whether all students have laptops, desktops, or palm tops. And assuming that they all stay in areas covered by network and have their own laptops, desktops or palmtops, there still remains the issue of subscription for data. Who subscribes for data for all the students that are involved: parents, students themselves, or the school authorities/management? In all modesty of assessment, it will amount to unsolicited discrimination and, therefore, unfair treatment, if any student should suffer any loss arising from non-participation in the online teaching and examination. These considerations become unnecessary in a setting where online teaching and examination is ab initio part and parcel of the modus operandi.
Equally affected in a special way were the university students. It is not only the knowledge and ideas students could have got from their original teachers/lecturers and those on sabbatical from other institutions that the COVID-19-induced mass quarantine and closure of schools have affected; it also elongated their stay in school. By making reference to lecturers on sabbatical, I am talking of how the COVID-19 mantra that hit all the strata of our society has affected the university staff’s participation in the sabbatical phenomenon. In Nigeria, sabbatical is a period in the life of a university academic when he/she is granted leave by his/her mother university to go on leave to another university in any part of the globe he/she is accepted and it is usually for a period of one year. The harm COVID-19 has done to those university staff on sabbatical is similar to what it did to many graduates currently undergoing their mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme in Nigeria: it made most of them serve out their sabbatical and Youth Service programme in their various homes, thereby denying the host universities (in the case of university staff on sabbatical) the opportunity to tap the knowledge and ideas of those academics – the very reason they were accepted for the leave. And in the case of the graduates undergoing their NYSC programme, it effectively denied them the experience associated with the service.
4.3 The harm on abortion rights
Although Nigeria formed the context for discussing the harms of COVID-19 on economy and education, I could not use it here as the context for examining the harm of COVID-19 on abortion rights for an obvious reason: Nigeria is among the nations of the world and indeed Africa that outlaw abortion. The only occasion or ground upon which abortion is permitted in Nigeria is the one in which abortion is the only option to save the mother. Nigeria has two sets of laws on abortion, namely, the Criminal Code24 , which is meant for the Southern states, and the Penal Code25 , which is for the Northern states of the country. Both the Criminal and Penal Codes in Nigeria contain various sections criminalizing abortion. Whereas abortion laws in the Criminal Code are contained in Articles 228 −230, 297, 309, and 328, those of the Penal Code are contained in Articles 232-236. Given the universal character of the concept of ‘harm’, the USA’s COVID-19-induced ban on abortion provides the context for examining the harm of COVID-19 on abortion rights.
The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak seems to have presented an opportunity (even if it is temporal) for states that have hitherto been uncomfortable with the legalization of abortion to shove abortion-seekers and abortion-providers aside. To this end, many states hide under the cover of fighting COVID-19 and the invocation of emergency powers to suspend the provision of abortion services in their states. Governors of such states based their decision on the grounds that abortion procedures are elective or nonessential medical service, adding that abortions are not crucial for anyone’s health, and that abortion providers use up badly needed personal protective equipment.26
Contrary to the position of those states that claim that abortion is a nonessential medical service and accordingly suspended abortion services in this era of COVID-19, international human rights law recognizes that individuals (especially women) have a right to sexual and reproductive health as well as bodily autonomy.27 Those who are supportive of abortion claim that the right to abortion is captured within the meaning of reproductive liberty and bodily autonomy. Besides this international legal recognition, international organizations like the WHO and other independent bodies such as the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Public Health Association (APHA), the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), as well as the American Medical Association are all of the strong affirmation that abortion is not just an essential healthcare service, but also a time-sensitive service, and that access to it is a fundamental right.28
Most of the states involved in COVID-19 abortion bans justify their action in the argument that abortion procedures strain the supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)29 and that their action would free up hospital beds for COVID-19 patients and preserve gloves and masks needed for frontline medical providers.30 But this argument is countered by Jones et al by noting that first trimester in-clinic procedures require very little PPE, and that the provision of medication abortion which accounts for at least one-third of all abortions in the country can be offered safely with little or no use of PPE.31 The authors add that COVID-19 abortion bans compromise the rights and health of all pregnant women under the guise of responding to the pandemic.
Given the fact that a study by Jones and Jerman reveals that the majority of abortion patients (up to three-quarters) are of the low-income class with the majority of them having one or more children, it becomes clear that the resulting costs following additional travels and the attendant lodgings are bound to impact negatively on the poor, socially and economically.32 Choosing the option of carrying the pregnancy to term may not be a better one, after all. This is because, if the data flowing from the study by Raymond and Grimes is anything to go by, it follows that child mortality attendant to childbirth may not be lesser than that associated with abortion.33 Their study indicates that the risk of mortality associated with childbirth is 14 times as high as for abortion. Also, resorting to self-managed abortion involving the use of informal medical platform appears to be even riskier, given the alarming rate of maternal mortality following unsafe abortion in jurisdictions where abortion is criminalized. But this is exactly what the COVID-19 abortion may end up achieving – individuals resorting to self-managing their abortion issues.
From the foregoing observations, it could be seen that the distinction made so far between the harms in and of COVID-19 has some analytical significance and implications. Among other things, it facilitates proactive interaction among the citizens and between the citizens and state actors and/or policy makers. It also facilitates and enables respect for autonomy. In this regard, the mere feeling that the public is aware of this distinction induces in the state actors proactive approach to and respect for the human autonomy, just as being conscious of the distinction enables the masses to better defend their personal autonomy against abuse as was exemplified in the case of APC’s rejection of Governor Obaseki’s executive order restricting social gathering for the then proposed party primaries. Thus seen, by facilitating a better embrace of person-centered and autonomy promoting care strategies of COOVID-19 containment, it could be said that distinguishing between the harms in and of COVID-19 is also character-enhancing.