Why lockdown of the elderly is not ageist and why levelling down equality is wrong

J Med Ethics. 2020 Nov;46(11):717-721. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2020-106336. Epub 2020 Jun 19.


In order to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19, governments have placed significant restrictions on liberty, including preventing all non-essential travel. These restrictions were justified on the basis the health system may be overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases and in order to prevent deaths. Governments are now considering how they may de-escalate these restrictions. This article argues that an appropriate approach may be to lift the general lockdown but implement selective isolation of the elderly. While this discriminates against the elderly, there is a morally relevant difference-the elderly are far more likely to require hospitalisation and die than the rest of the population. If the aim is to ensure the health system is not overwhelmed and to reduce the death rate, preventing the elderly from contracting the virus may be an effective means of achieving this. The alternative is to continue to keep everyone in lockdown. It is argued that this is levelling down equality and is unethical. It suggests that in order for the elderly to avoid contracting the virus, the whole population should have their liberty deprived, even though the same result could be achieved by only restricting the liberty of the elderly. Similar arguments may also be applied to all groups at increased risk of COVID-19, such as men and those with comorbidities, the obese and people from ethnic minorities or socially deprived groups. This utilitarian concern must be balanced against other considerations, such as equality and justice, and the benefits gained from discriminating in these ways must be proportionately greater than the negative consequences of doing so. Such selective discrimination will be most justified when the liberty restriction to a group promotes the well-being of that group (apart from its wider social benefits).

Keywords: aged; ethics; philosophical ethics; public health ethics; public policy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Ageism*
  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology
  • Coronavirus Infections / prevention & control*
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology
  • Female
  • Freedom
  • Human Rights*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Morals
  • Pandemics / ethics*
  • Pandemics / prevention & control
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / prevention & control*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology
  • Public Health / ethics*
  • Public Policy
  • Quarantine*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Social Isolation*
  • Social Justice