After months of living with COVID-19, many of us feel like we’ve become experts in what we’re supposed to do to stay safe. We’re washing our hands, wearing our masks, disinfecting our surfaces. But, while we may have thought a great deal about the health implications of our actions, fewer of us have seriously thought about the ethical implications, especially as more businesses reopen and orders begin to relax. Is is OK to go to restaurants? Going supports a local business (good!) but could put workers at risk (bad!). Traveling out of town, socializing with friends and family, ordering stuff online… In the words of Jonathan Van Ness, just because you Ameri-can, doesn’t mean you Ameri-should.
“When we consider the balance of the economy and the protection of public health and also think about what level of risk (with respect to getting infected with the virus) is acceptable, that is where we run into a number of ethical quandaries,” says Dr. Shira Shafir, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and an expert in the field of health ethics. “I think it’s particularly important to ask two questions: First, are my actions increasing the risk that someone else will get infected? Second, am I asking another person to take a risk with respect to exposure to this virus that I am not willing to take?”
“First, are my actions increasing the risk that someone else will get infected? Second, am I asking another person to take a risk with respect to exposure to this virus that I am not willing to take?”
Dr. Shafir notes that, in her mind, it would certainly help if the government stepped in to ease the economic burden the pandemic has placed on so many–but in the absence of that, we’re just going to have to look out for one another.
“Surviving this pandemic requires that we shift from a focus on individual well-being to a focus on the well-being of the entire community. Until we have a safe and effective vaccine, we are relying on people to change their behaviors in order to control the spread of this pandemic. This means wearing a mask whenever out of the house to protect others, keeping a distance of six feet from all individuals with whom you are not in a bubble, and generally considering the well-being of others at all times.”
With that in mind, we asked Dr. Shafir to weigh in on some common situations that we’re finding ourselves in as we navigate life in these times.
Hiring a Tutor or Babysitter to Come to Your Home for Childcare or Instruction
“While, in general, this situation doesn’t present an ethical problem as long as people have a clear discussion about expectations with respect to behaviors to prevent the spread of the virus, I think that this one exemplifies a much larger ethical issue in society whereby we will see a huge divide between those who have the resources to pay for in-home childcare or instruction and those who do not.”
Dining On-Premises at a Restaurant
“I suppose this is framing the question as: Am I risking lives or saving restaurants? The answer is both. The person who is providing that table service may have had to work in order to provide for their family, so it’s critical not to increase their risk of infection. Take away is a better option that allows you to have the food that you are craving, but still
support a restaurant and its workers. In general, activities outside are lower risk than those inside. And wearing masks whenever within six feet of anyone with whom you’re not in a ‘bubble’ helps reduce that risk significantly. So dining outside on a restaurant patio is lower risk, but it’s important to remember to keep your mask on at any time when you’re not eating so that you are not unnecessarily increasing the risk for the server. And tip well.”
Inviting a Friends or Family to Your Home
“We now have a lot of evidence that people are spreading COVID when having social gatherings. I would recommend not having social gatherings. If someone chooses to do so, outside is better than inside and masks on is critical! Creating a bubble or pod is a better option. This means finding a small group of people with whom you agree to socialize exclusively. Doing so allows people to engage in human interaction but also reduces the risk of outbreaks.”
Ordering Grocery Delivery
“For me, this is an example of asking someone else to take a risk that you are unwilling to take. If you’re healthy and at low risk, I think it means going to the grocery store yourself. Either way, tip well.”
Ordering Packages from Amazon or Other Online Shops
“Amazon workers have been protesting to demand safer working conditions in the midst of the pandemic. We know that people are risking their health and their family’s health to make sure consumers have what they need, so I would recommend to only buy the essentials.”
Leaving a City with a High Infection Rate to Stay in a More Remote Area with Fewer Cases
“We now have a lot of data to support the fact that when people have done this, they have taken the virus with them and seeded new outbreaks in remote vacation spots that often have less capacity to deal with severe infections. Unless someone is going to bring all of their food with them and not interact with the community in the place that they are visiting, I think that this is looking out for one’s own interests above those of the community.”
Watching Professional Sports or Other Entertainment that Requires Players, Performers, or Staff to Work in Person
“I actually feel a little differently about this one, because, for most professional sports, the athletes have been given the option to opt out of play. That said, all of the major sports leagues are requiring regular testing of their players and other staff, and where I think that we get into an ethical issue is the using of these tests for athletes so they can play when we still don’t have enough tests to diagnose those who are infected in a timely manner.”