Pandemic Ethics Observations, Part 2: Reality

(Part I is here.)

I’m going to try to keep this chapter as free of politics as possible for as long as possible.

It won’t be easy.

In general, the unprecedented society-wide obsession with the Wuhan virus pandemic in the U.S. is a product of mass media and social media as much as the virus itself. One could almost call it a parallel epidemic here, one of distorted behavior and social norms rather than illness. The question is whether that behavior and those norms are ethical in nature or if they are propelled by non-ethical considerations—fear, for example; not just fear for one’s own welfare being threatened, but fear of being made a pariah. It also matters if they work. Ethical requirements that are certain to be futile in practice because of well-known aspects of human nature are not ethical. They are delusional and harmful.

For the short term, one could give everyone the benefit of the doubt and call this mass Golden Rule behavior: each of us would like to have everyone else behave so as to minimize the likelihood that we would be infected, right? However, like so often is the case with the Golden Rule, this calculation only works in an imaginary vacuum that ignores the complex systems that are society, culture and civilization.

Do we really want “everyone” to behave in this extreme risk-averse manner if it crashes the economy? If it puts friends, neighbors and loved ones out of work? If it makes day to day life impossible? This is why Absolutism and Reciprocity fail so often as ethical systems, and why Utilitarianism is required in some measure to temper their effects and distortions.

However, in the outrageous scaremongering we are witnessing, some of it simple hysteria, some ignorance, and much of it motivated by that which I am going to try not to talk about until Part III, the real trade-offs are being obscured or missed. This is, to name  a single ethical breach, incompetence. I actually read several pieces yesterday that argued that to understand how the pandemic spreads, one should consider “World War Z,” the graphic novel-turned Brad Pitt horror movie. I understand the narrow point being made, but it’s still an irresponsible and stupid thing to say or write. “World War Z,” is dystopian future film in which a rampaging virus turns most of the world’s population into mad, speedy, flesh-craving zombies. It is the likely end of the world, with everyone doomed to a horrible death.  That is not what faces the United States, or anyone, with this virus. Shut up!

The scary terminology and analogies are intentional and designed to alarm people into being ethical, which is a contradiction in terms. One can only be ethical out of reason and reasoning; if one is reacting out of fear, that’s non-ethical conduct based on non-ethical considerations, in this case, mistaken ones. Increasingly, for example, the estimates of what the fatality rate is for those infected with the Wuhan virus has come down to around 1% or less.  1% is serious; it would be about ten times (or so; the exact number isn’t crucial to the ethics exercise) the fatality rate of those infected with a typical flu. Does that make the virus “deadly?” In my dictionary, something that is deadly will kill you. This virus is unlikely to kill you: calling it deadly is panic inducing, and false. A peanut can kill someone, but we don’t call peanuts deadly.

Statistics aside, however, someone who is killed by a flu is just as dead as someone killed by the Wuhan virus (if more dead than someone killed by the “World War Z” virus). We don’t shut down society and go into social isolation with flu outbreaks. At what point between %.01 and %1 does it become ethical to shut down social interaction, education, commerce, entertainment and sports, wrecking the economy and destroying industries, lives and careers in the process? Is it ethical?

Is it ethical if it’s highly unlikely that it’s unlikely to work anyway? Are the same people who are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizers going to be attentive and careful enough to follow all of the burdensome and extreme rules being thrown at them, all the time, every day, for months? Who believes that? How many people will treat this virus which they know, in the vast majority of cases, is not going to hurt their children or themselves, as if it’s the equivalent of a nuclear winter? Patients die in hospitals with disturbing regularity because they are infected with  “bugs” spread by health care professionals who don’t wash their hands sufficiently. Yet they are trained, and have protocols requiring such precautions; they face serious penalties for violating them. My mother was killed by such a person who infected her. We are expecting regular people who neglect their teeth, kids, hygiene, exercise, health and finances routinely to suddenly stop touching their faces, and begin compulsively washing every surface in the house and timing each of the 700 instances a day they have been told to wash their hands, and in that expectation, are demanding that life be curtailed indefinitely.

Is that ethical?

Much of what I see is herd mentality and groupthink. It wasn’t until a single NBA player who more or less deliberately infected himself tested positive for the disease that the league suspended its season. Then hockey and baseball, afraid of being labelled irresponsible, suspended their seasons, even though the risk to healthy athletes posed by Wuhan is approximately nil.  The players are all millionaires; the small business owners and contractors who survive off of professional sports are not. Was this an ethical decision? Similarly closing the schools throws young children into homes where caregivers are needed and teenagers onto the street or the dark web.

Responsible? Ethical?

Several sources, presumably reliable (but who knows?) have  said that the point of extreme measures is not necessarily to reduce cases of the virus but to lengthen the curve so that health care services are not overwhelmed. Oh! So no lives will be saved, for certain? We’re wrecking careers, businesses and industries for that? Good to know—except that most of the public doesn’t know that, if it’s true. If it’s true, that information is being withheld from the average news reports. After all, who’ll put a stopwatch on their hand-washing if it’s not going to matter…

Isn’t the toilet paper debacle  proof that this is not being driven by rational decision-making, and since it isn’t, the extreme reaction is not ethical? If “everyone” is hoarding toilet paper like an idiot, non-idiots are tempted to grab every roll off the shelves as a precaution, which in turn harms others. Why are people doing this? They do it because of zombie analogies, watching the stock market behave like a yo-yo (but with scare headlines when it goes down, and headlines half the size when it goes up) “experts “opining that we may be “doomed,”  and seeing their lives completely disrupted.

So what is the ethical response?

There is none.

This is ethics zugswang. Nothing is enough, everything is too much, half-way doesn’t work, and standing still is irresponsible. Think about leaders who address the public on this crisis. If they tell people not to panic and that its not “World War Z,” they will be accused of minimizing the seriousness of the pandemic and undermining compliance with the new rules.  If they insist that we must take extreme measures to save our communities, they are fear-mongering. There is no middle ground.

This is where the “do something!” mentality leads. Nobody wants to be accused of not doing the right thing, and nobody has the courage to be honest. In the end, the most unethical and irrational standard of all will be applied: consequentialism. If the final tally shows that cases and fatalities were fewer than the doomsday projections and what other nations experienced, then most of the public will say that policy makers preformed well. In fact, such a result will be mostly luck, as will a more negative result.

The only thing we can be sure of is that whatever the final result, Democrats and the news media will say that it’s much worse than it would have been if President Trump wasn’t in the White House.

And with that, I’ll end Part II.

24 thoughts on “Pandemic Ethics Observations, Part 2: Reality

  1. Great post, Jack. As you know, I’m a crisis communications consultant by trade. To say the last few weeks have been busy is an understatement.

    I happen to share your view that the politico-media complex has been appallingly irresponsible to date, and is unnecessarily adding fuel to the fire for purposes of its own enrichment.

    It doesn’t help that the United States has scant experience with true pandemics. If we think about it, the only other pandemics which truly influenced American behavior in the last 70 or 80 years were AIDS (1980s-90s) and polio (1950s-60s). The so-called Asian Flu of the late ’50s was probably more deadly than this, largely because flus and vaccines weren’t well understood then. The previous biggest scare, smallpox, was pretty much eliminated in the US and Canada in the 1940s.

    This ignorance isn’t must present in the general population – it’s equally present in the news media. There simply aren’t many people left in media who can bring that perspective – and those who are in media are either too agenda-driven or too lazy to check. Maybe both.

    So realistically, businesses are now reacting as best they can given the zeitgeist. Privately, business owners may say “this is overhyped bullshit” but the realities on the ground are such that they have no choice but to react. I do a fair amount of work in certain sectors of outdoor recreation; a bunch of such organizations in the US and Europe have ended their seasons early in response. Interestingly, some of those that continue to operate are embracing things like “social distancing” to the extent they can, and some are getting pummeled – largely by people with a class warfare bent (this particular sector is pretty expensive) for NOT closing down. Some of these idiots are apparently actually demanding that these businesses get shut down by government decree.

    I’m spending a lot of time these days helping clients create statements and positions that work within the current zeitgeist. The deck is currently stacked such that they, and I, really have no choice. I may think the driving force is largely bullshit, but if one must walk into a prevailing wind, one does so in the most efficient means possible.

    • The virtue-signaling is so transparent. A small credit card started harassing us a full week before a payment was due. Then as soon as we paid to stop the phone calls, we got an email telling us that they would do “anything” to support us during the pandemic crisis.

      We’re cancelling that card. Assholes.

  2. “closing the schools throws young children into homes where caregivers are needed and teenagers onto the street or the dark web.”

    Over/under on a noticeable uptick in…um…unplanned pregnancies amongst the under-aged in ~ 3-4 months?

    • A facebook wag posted this morning on this very subject. He noted that starting in 2033, these kids will be known as “quarenteens.”

  3. This virus, while a pandemic, is not a serious danger to most of the earth’s inhabitants. It does significantly enhance danger to some who are already at medical risk or are simply older with less than fresh immune systems.

    Solutions being offered to this are the one size fits society type. In reality, the solutions don’t work for many. Regardless of our circumstances, we should do our best to protect ourselves and help others when possible.

    To those politicizing this or those pretending to care, like your credit card firm, go to hell.

  4. I’ve been saying something similar, publically on facebook for once (I usually try to stay out of internet arguments because I don’t have the time or energy.) Basically, there’s a very specific timeframe for temporary (one or two weeks) measures to flatten the curve within a community. And the community/regional level is what’s important: Italy’s nightmarish problems aren’t in Italy as a whole, they’re in one region that’s particularly hard hit. Having empty hospital beds in Easton, MD won’t help people in NYC, and vice versa.

    Unsurprisingly, national or state wide guidelines are useless for this. Those kinds of steps need to happen when the virus is just starting to spread within the specific community they’re imposed upon, which isn’t the case for most of the country. And by the time it is spreading in our areas, no one will be willing or able to afford to keep up extreme measures. We’re setting ourselves up for failure, and if we do fail the complaints will be “why didn’t we do MORE?” rather than “We did too much of the wrong things.”

  5. Two weeks ago the mortality rate was 3.4 % or 34 times as deadly as the H1N1 flu and Tucker Carlson ranted about how deadly this is. Today that number is 1% so the mortality rate drops as more cases without fatalities are documented.

    Dr Fauchi(?) made the statement that it is 10 x deadlier than flu but he cannot make that statement until the pandemic has run its course. Some of his statements contradict even himself and create confusion. The ten times deadlier statement was downright irresponsible. The only way that statement can be true is if the known universe of those infected is reasonably well known and not subject to any significant changes.

    Using a baseball analogy to illustrate if a player bats 500 with only 10 at bats while another who plays a whole season with 500 at bats but only gets a hit once every 3 at bats the player with the 500 avg is not necessarily a better hitter.

    We cannot assess the relative mortality rates until the event ends. Further, many cases of the flu were not confirmed with a test, doctors called it the flu when patients presented with flu-like symptoms. This increases the denominator which lowers mortality rates.

    I hear that the volatlity of the market is due to “uncertainty”. History would show that the market will be higher in the future than right now. The only uncertainty is what will happen in the near term. It is also certain that selling currently owned stocks that would otherwise perform well as the stock price falls below original purchase price will cause the investor to realize a loss. Conversly, not selling helps stabilize the market value, prevents realizing a loss, and avoids unnecessary transaction costs. John Q Public will not be able to outwit the automated trading mechanisims creating the volatility. Stand pat and you will be better off.

    • With much of the virus in countries with poor reporting and recordkeeping, the death rate is going to be highly controversial. I was wondering if they were keeping all those passengers on the cruise ship as guinea pigs to study the virus. Only by allowing it to sweep through such a captive group will you get a true handle on the incubation time, its transmissibility, and the death rate of those exposed. I mean, that’s cold…really cold, but it is probably the best way to determine this.

      Now, it appears the death rate in S. Korea is 0.7%. In Iran, it appears to be over 8%. The number of deaths is going to depend on the availability of ICU facilities. As long as we all don’t get sick at once, things shouldn’t be too bad. We just need a few more weeks before summer drastically slows the transmission (like it does the flu). When that happens, these restrictions won’t be necessary. The number of new cases will easily be handled by our medical facilities.

      I have been taking precautions to minimize any issues I might have. I am going to be limiting my time in public until that happens. Of course, I can’t self-isolate, I have a job and children. But, I don’t need to go out to restaurants, to the movies, to the grocery store, etc for about a month or so. I slowly stocked up over the last 2 months for that very reason. For the vast majority of people, this is a pandemic of inconvenience, not life and death. I am preparing to minimize the inconvenience. I am buying any clothes I may need for the next 6 months in case of shortages that will occur when people try to buy summer clothes for themselves and their children (the factories that make your clothes are shut down right now) and many stores are currently having clearance sales. I have been advising students who have failing laptops to buy one now. There may not be one when you need it. These will be temporary shortages and not life or death, but not being able to replace a broken laptop is more than a minor problem for today’s college students. Just commonsense things.

      • Your cruise ship / guinea pig statement is classic conspiracy theory nonsense.

        But just for the fun of it, here are a couple more:

        1. I read last year that the WHO, in a longitudinal study, found that in the worst-polluted Chinese industrial cities, the average IQ had dropped 10%. 10% !! Great for the Chinese leadership: the dumber people are, the more malleable they are as well. Great conspiracy.

        2. The Wuhan virus is a Chinese bio-weapon experiment gone terribly, terribly wrong. I especially love that one.

        But both are just as stupid as cruise ships being used as giant petri dishes…

    • Nice analysis, Chris. Clear, coherent, and reasonable. You must be “re-educated” with extreme prejudice. We can’t have that.

      I watch Tucker Carlson on a regular basis because he offers what I can’t get other places: skepticism. I am perplexed by his position on this mess – he thinks everybody is lying and the pandemic is much worse than we know and are being told. The Governor and head of the health department of Ohio were on his show Friday night. They said 1% of Ohioans were infected. Ohio has a population of 11 million, so they postulated that at least 100,000 Ohioans were infected, and that number would double every 6 days. That is a crazy high number. They came to that conclusion with computer models (sound familiar?). Right after, a federal health official said the health system was poised to handle the crisis. His very next guest openly declared her incompetent and flatly stated her comments terrified him. Then, yesterday I saw that CNN bozo Brian Stetler (sp?) repost Carlson’s comments with approval. You know you are in questionable territory when Stetler approves of what you say.

      jvb

  6. I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the mass-buyers are not hoarding. They bought as much as they could in order to price-gouge. Take a look at ebay and amazon to see the results. Amazon has taken some measures to remove these sellers.

  7. Not only are professional players millionaires, they likely suffer no pay cuts as they are contract employees. Unlike the hourly workers at the park who will simply go unpaid.

  8. I usually look forward to reading your blog each morning, and today was no exception. But I skipped the word salad above because you insist on calling this the Wuhan virus. I know, I know, you are standing up to all the “woke” who think that is a racist term. But at some point, after the rest of the world has decided that indeed this is a new version of corona, don’t you just become a jerk for keeping it up? Is your terminology ethical?

    • I also read your blog in reverse order, so I just finished skimming the previous one. I still disagree with you, but at least you’ve stated your case.

    • No, the jerks are the ones who capitulate to political correctness manipulation, which is a form of indoctrination. Not following the crowd doesn’t make you a jerk. You need to rethink that. The acceptance of that mindset is how we get arguments about how the US should ban capital punishment and have government health care because “every other first world country” does it. Is the US a jerk because it has a First Amendment? Everybody I know, or 95% of them, take the position that the President is presumed guilty of something, and should be removed from office by any means necessary. I reject that unequivocally, and will continue to do so. I refused to touch pot throughout my college years at a time of almost universal acceptance of the drug culture by my friends and peers, and was, in fact, called a jerk for doing so. I always regarded the “of color” linguistic foolishness creeping minority chic, and do not, and will not, use that phrase as a substitute for “black,” as it is pompous and meaningless except as a badge of political correctness.

      Essentially, you just made a lazy argument for “Everybody does it.” I’m an ethicist.That’s not good enough. If someone can show me a reason why the news media pivoted from Wuhan Virus to “Coronavirus” (which is ambiguous) or COVID-19 other than the fact that genuine jerks like Rep. Omar and OAC were calling the name racist, the Chinese were working overtime to duck any accountability, and the newsmedia was searching for ways to make President Trump the villain in this, I’ll reconsider it. However, “But at some point, after the rest of the world has decided that indeed this is a new version of corona, don’t you just become a jerk for keeping it up?” is pure “Everybody does it.”

      Yes, my terminology is ethical.

  9. Jack wrote, “The only thing we can be sure of is that whatever the final result, Democrats and the news media will say that it’s much worse than it would have been if President Trump wasn’t in the White House.”

    Oh it’s worse than that; I’ve already seen at least one really ignorant Trump hater openly blaming Trump for everything related to the the virus in the USA and it’s not very likely that that person came up with that opinion on their own, you know the hive mind effect. I suspect that openly blaming Trump will catch on quickly.

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