What matters more, beliefs or actions? If you feel your knee jerk at this question and an immediate answer comes to mind, I encourage you to give it a little more thought. I raise the question now because this blog has always addressed beliefs first. But today I want to talk about actions. I want to take the same principles of reason, logic, and bias-awareness that shape our beliefs and apply them to our choices and actions. Specifically, I want to address how we should react to the whole “social distancing” thing during a pandemic.
Friends, government, and other social institutions tell us to stay home. But many of us, myself included, chafe at having our autonomy curtailed. Why should I stay home? After all, the COVID-19 isn’t much worse than the flu, right? And we don’t quarantine ourselves or take such drastic measures during flu season, right? If I’m healthy, the flu isn’t going to kill me, right? So what’s the big deal.
Ethics of A Pandemic
I’m going to assume that no one reading this is an egoist. That is, you all believe that other people matter when making your moral decisions. So if that’s the case, then this brings up important implications for pandemic behavior. The rational, moral action is the one that considers all those who are affected by my action (in a limited scope, like a town or city, perhaps). So how do my actions during a pandemic affect others? In more ways than you might initially realize.
How does “social distancing” help? The practice of social distancing isn’t really for your benefit, as an individual. Social distancing protects the most vulnerable in our society. The elderly, infants, and those whose immune system isn’t operating at 100% due to pre-existing conditions or other factors, like chemotherapy. How?
Doing the Math
It isn’t just that we think COVID-19 will kill those vulnerable people (which it may). The worry is that it may kill them because they couldn’t get access to medical care. But we have great medical care in the USA, right? Yes, but even our system has limits. There are a finite number of hospital beds in each community.
For example, our University Hospital here in Columbia has about 250 beds. Suppose that were our only hospital, and all the beds were open. Now imagine that 400 very vulnerable people contracted COVID-19 in the same week. (This is quite possible.) And assume that they would all need hospitalization–maybe they require intravenous fluids. Potentially 150 of them would be turned away, leading to worsening of their condition and potentially death.
Flatten the Pandemic Curve
So the key to all of this is simple: we need to try to keep the number of people requiring a hospital bed at any given time LOWER than the number of hospital beds available at that given time. We can treat 1,000 people, as long as they don’t all show up at once. We need to “spread” them out over time. Many call this “flattening the curve.” How can we do that? Social distancing.
Computer simulations, science, mathematics, and logic tell us that the spread of a virus in a pandemic happens at a certain speed, or rate. This rate slows down when people stop moving around and bumping into other people, and speeds up when we do the opposite. So, if we stay home (mostly), the virus will still spread, but more slowly. That way, at any given time, the number of people needing hospitalization is less than the number of beds. If that still isn’t clear, click the image to watch this educational YouTube video (had trouble embedding the video for some reason):
As long as the “conveyor belt” of patients moves slowly, we can accommodate them. But if the speed picks up, bringing more and more patients in, all hades breaks loose. We’ll be shuffling them into broom closets or just eating them to hide the evidence. Mass hysteria.
Being A Good Samaritan
My first semester of grad school at Mizzou, our cohort read a book called, Is There A Duty to Obey the Law? by John Simmons and Christopher Wellman. Wellman argues that because we have a duty to do good when we can to our neighbors (“good samaritanism”), we ought to obey the laws, which are ultimately designed to protect the welfare of our community. “Social distancing” isn’t a law (yet), but it is a measure designed to protect our vulnerable “neighbors.” This should be enough reason to do it, even if we don’t see an immediate, direct benefit to ourselves.
So, unless you have an overriding reason to go out among people, you should probably stay at home. This is action based not on fear, but on love.
ADDENDUM: I neglected to bring up the special case of health care workers. They are the exception. It seems clear to me that they have a special moral duty that overrides the social distancing requirement. They are like soldiers, or first-responders in this way. This article might be helpful in thinking through the issue.