Policymakers, health-care providers, and ordinary citizens are grappling with ethical challenges presented by COVID-19. What are our obligations to others? How do we balance the risks to individuals and society? What’s an ethical response to the virus’s unequal impact on different communities? Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and Human Values Elizabeth Harman has agreed to answer readers’ questions on pandemic ethics — send yours to Tiger Ethics at firstname.lastname@example.org or PAW, 194 Nassau St., Suite 38, Princeton, NJ, 08542. We’ll post selected questions and responses to paw.princeton.edu.
Editor’s note: The questions here came from a member of the Class of 2012.
I was deeply disturbed by the killing of George Floyd, and I feel strongly about the need to reform our police system and end police brutality. But I know that I also have a responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to encourage others to do the same. If I protest racial injustice, can I still tell others not to protest something that they care about?
Some people felt whiplash as public outcry over mask-resisters’ protests transitioned quickly to widespread public support of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Why is one kind of protest decried as socially irresponsible, while the other kind of protest is lauded as the right thing to do now?
It would be nice to have content-neutral moral principles for protest such as, “If there’s an issue that matters to you, then you can protest during the pandemic,” or “No matter how much an issue matters to you, the pandemic is not the time to protest.” But in this case, no such content-neutral principles are true.
When we see the mask-resisters’ protests, it matters that they are demanding the right to spread a deadly disease. It matters that there is no such right. Their cause is morally bankrupt.
When we see the Black Lives Matter protests, it matters that their cause is just and urgent. It matters that our country is in a crisis of over-policing Black communities and police violence toward Black people. Someone might ask, “Why now? We are in a pandemic, which is an immediate, urgent crisis. Yes, police violence toward Black people is also a crisis, but it’s a longstanding crisis; why deal with it now?” There are two answers to this question. First, the moral crisis we face is serious enough that it is imperative to speak about it through protest to address it. The fact that we should have been protesting sooner and more often is no excuse to fail to protest now; it is no reason to think that we should not protest now. Second, it is not an accident that this is happening during the pandemic. The pandemic has hit communities of color harder than white communities in the United States. The pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted existing racial inequalities.
All of this should be said even if the Black Lives Matter protests were a dangerous source of COVID spread. Protesting severe injustice is worth doing; there is compelling moral reason to do it. But in fact, my understanding is that the protesters have largely worn masks, and the Black Lives Matter protests have not led to the disease spikes that were feared.
My friend recently tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies and has decided not to wear a mask in public because she finds them uncomfortable and inconvenient. She figures people who see her without one should understand that she has a good reason (that she is not contagious or likely to get re-infected). Does she have a responsibility to uphold the convention of wearing a mask, even when it doesn’t do any practical good?
Unfortunately, we are not living in the society your friend is imagining. In the United States, if someone enters a store without a mask, it is more likely that they are defiantly refusing to follow the widespread disease-prevention guidance — out of a misplaced assertion of individual autonomy or a wishful-thinking denial of the COVID-19 pandemic — than that they are a responsible person who has COVID-19 antibodies. So, if your friend walks into a store without a mask, no one will assume she has tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies; rather, she will be taken for a mask-resister.
Would this be bad? Yes, for two reasons. First, your friend will appear dangerous to those around her. Second, she will be publicly resisting the convention of mask-wearing, as you say; this is a weighty matter. Authorities are telling us that if everyone in the country consistently wore masks in public spaces (along with the other partial shutdowns and social distancing that has been in place), we could get a handle on the pandemic.
Finally, is your friend a real risk to others? She may be. Antibody tests have false positives. And the science on whether reinfection is possible is not fully settled.
Assuming that your friend does not have a health condition that makes mask-wearing dangerous to her, she should continue to wear a mask in public spaces!