One year ago Austria responded to the initial COVID-19 wave with tight restrictions. Being outside of your home was only permitted for essential work, to buy food, or to help others. Gatherings of more than five people were forbidden.

These restrictions limited, and continue to limit, individuals’ agency – a common definition of harm. As such, clear legal and ethical justifications are required for the acceptability of incurring this harm. The justification the government has provided is the need to protect critical healthcare infrastructure.

Interestingly this justification establishes a new standard of personal responsibility. Before COVID-19 individuals’ duties were limited to financing the healthcare system through taxes and insurance contributions. Since COVID-19, however, individuals now have an additional duty to remain healthy and protect the healthcare system by limiting the probability of becoming ill and/or transferring illnesses to others.

The Austrian healthcare system, like most European healthcare systems, is overburdened and the majority of healthcare expenditures are directly attributable to preventable chronic illness such as Type II diabetes and high blood pressure. Obesity is a key contributor to both ailments and this in turn is often attributable to poor nutrition and lack of exercise. The obesity epidemic threatens the public health care system as much as, if not more than, the corona pandemic.

If protecting the healthcare system justifies curtailing personal liberty in the case of COVID-19, can the same justification be applied to countering the obesity epidemic? I say yes. If we accept restrictions on personal agency in the case of battling a viral pandemic than we must also accept them in combating an obesity epidemic.

In my next post I will show that obesity is a dire and imminent threat to a critical common-pool resource, setting the stage for why corrective action is urgently needed. Please note that I am not motivated by archaic religious beliefs regarding gluttony, nor by paternalistic actions for the sake of an individual’s own good. My only concerns are preventing public harm, protecting critical infrastructure, and promoting civic virtue.

Many may find this argument morally repugnant and offer reasons why comparisons cannot be drawn between obesity and COVID-19. I welcome your ideas. When considering curbs and limits on personal freedom caution is merited and policies should not be enacted without careful deliberation. I believe this is best achieved through lively discourse. So please, leave a comment and join the discussion.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

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