Coronavirus (COVID-19): To stop the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, countries around the world have continued to enforce lockdown measures, even as they cause a severely detrimental impact on the global economy. The aggressive methods to halt the virus by suspending mobility are examples of a strategy known as the ‘precautionary principle’.
While this principle has so far been applied in a number of areas such as environmental law and food safety, its proponents are now asking that governments use the strategy more rigorously in matters of public health, especially during the current crisis.
What is the precautionary principle?
According to the principle, authorities must take precautionary measures when stakes are high, despite when scientific evidence about the expected event being harmful is not yet certain. This implies that protective action should be taken to prevent any possible harm, even if there is a chance that such harm will not occur–thus playing it safe. For example, when there is a hurricane, it would make more sense to get out of its way than to stay put and evaluate possible responses.
Out of social responsibility, policymakers around the world have applied the principle in situations when taking a decision could possibly cause harm, and conclusive evidence is still not available. For instance, authorities will not permit the launch of new technology or medication, unless thorough testing proves that the product is safe.
Critics of the principle have called it unscientific and risk-averse, and it has also found opposition globally from politicians who have pushed for deregulation.
The principle first found acceptance in Germany in the 1970s and 80s, as lawmakers sought its implementation in cases of uncertain environmental and health hazards. In 1992, the UN Rio Declaration on Environment and Development incorporated the strategy, as did the Maastricht Treaty. The Rio Declaration defines the principle as: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
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According to the working definition of the UNESCO, the principle lays down that “when human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm”.
Application during the novel coronavirus pandemic
In the early weeks of the pandemic, countries such as China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore were lauded for their efforts in applying the principle effectively, by stepping up reliable methods for combating the spread of the virus– such as quarantines, social distancing, and extensive testing. Due to their quick response, these countries were able to keep the rate of infections and deaths lower than in many Western countries which enacted such precautionary measures much later.
In the UK, the government was criticised when it first relied on its untested “herd immunity” theory, instead of following the example of Asian countries which relied on more robust practices. In the US, the Trump administration was accused of playing down the threat. Even in late March, President Trump urged lifting social distancing measures by Easter.
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Now, as the world debates how lockdown measures should be lifted, proponents of the precautionary principle have urged that governments rely on robust and known methods to keep future adverse impacts to a minimum, staying away from untested assumptions.