Quick Thoughts On A Pandemic

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.

Flattening the curve refers to community isolation measures that keep the daily number of disease cases at a manageable level for medical providers.

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):

Image result for lucy works at a chocolate factory color

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.

9 thoughts on “Quick Thoughts On A Pandemic

  1. Chris, now I get it seeing Lucy and Ethel. Perhaps what we all need is a couple of spoons full of Vit-A-Meata-Veggamin to get us through.

  2. Excellent job Chris. Let me ask this… I agree that it’s our duty or obligation to our fellow citizens and to God to obey the authorities and employ the social distancing measure to try and slow the virus down. However, when a doctor or nurse or any medical personel go to their jobs they face a dilemma. Do they “keep their distance” from the sick or treat them. There’s no middle ground. They are violating the social distancing policy to do their job and in the process could be spreading the infection. The fact that treating the patients is an ethical obligation as well doesn’t make up for violating the social distancing policy. Or does it? What do you think? What do you do when you have two ethical principles in opposition?

    1. You also bring up the same excellent point as Candace (other comment). Health care workers are a special case, and they have a duty to be in contact with patients.

  3. First, in my opinion, I think there has already been a wave of Covid19 in the US. We just weren’t looking for it. This year has been a difficult “flu” season with numerous deaths. I understand the need to flatten the curve, but there are arguments for pros and cons on both sides. Right now, my institution has many empty beds. There is no need to panic.
    As a health care worker, I do care and I do social distance when in the public sector because I’ve been asked to by our elected leaders and I understand the reasoning. When at work, as a nurse, patient contact is a must. I exist on each polar end of the situation. The only thing that protects me from this virus is personal protection equipment which is now locked up and not always readily available. When at work, there is always a risk to my personal health on a daily basis all year round. There have been cases of patients being under my care for a few days, then on day 4 when all tests results are back, I find out the patient is positive for a communicable condition. Surprise! Where have I been the last few days, who have I been around, hugged, kissed, etc… Fortunately, I am vaccinated, in good health, and make sure I wash my hands, along with other routine precautions. It is my ethical duty and a personal choice to take these precautions at work when caring for every patient. Therefore, I’m not a threat to my family, friends, and the general population.
    Health care professionals are trained to take action to prevent transmission of communicable in an institution where it is most likely to happen. It is not a “law” we obey. We (nurses, doctors, etc…) are by nature good Samaritans and also have an ethical, moral, and personal obligation towards our patients. We have created a “culture” in our institution to protect ourselves and our patients by practicing proper handwashing, proper PPE use, proper disinfection techniques, and personal accountability.
    We are on the front lines, there is no social distancing from our patients, and we are all at risk. It is our job. We are required to show up for work and do our best to care for the sick come hell or high water. It’s like our service men going into battle armed and ready to protect our people with their lives. It’s what we signed up for.
    I’m confident that health care workers are not in violation of social distancing since it is understood to be a profession that requires contact with patients at some level. For example, telemedicine is considered a form of social distancing in medicine, but is not effective when someone is having a heart attack. Someone must have physical contact with that person in order to save their life. This is moral, ethical, and the doing the right thing.
    As a health care worker, I believe the two ethical principles in opposition seem to negate each other on moral standards.

    1. Candace — thanks for your perspective. It is an important point that I didn’t bring up in my post. I agree completely that things are different when it comes to health care workers — you have a special moral duty to put yourself in harm’s way. No one can ask this of you, if must be voluntary. But in any case you’re absolutely right. My post is primarily aimed at average Joes and Janes who “don’t get” the social distancing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *