With different countries implementing varied border closures, lockdown and social distancing rules, most of us are struggling with the incredibly restrictive nature of life amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of us won’t even comply with the measures, breaking lockdown here and there for reasons we believe are justified.
I was chatting online with a friend recently who said that he wanted to visit his 80-something-year-old grandmother, who lived nearby.
“I miss her a lot,” he admitted, “and sometimes I want to go over quickly to give her a sneaky hug, but I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do,” he said, referring to the fact that the elderly and those with weak immune systems have been classified as individuals who are at high risk of coronavirus infection.
Questions of morality are common during a crisis such as a global pandemic. When something as vital as health hangs in the balance, determining what is ethically right and wrong can be tricky.
Morality doesn’t benefit the receiver of the actions as much as it benefits the doer. Psychologists and experts have identified this time as particularly tough for humanity, mentally and emotionally, and many of us face ethical dilemmas on a daily basis as we try to navigate our lives through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, answered some questions on the most common moral predicaments associated with the coronavirus in an interview with TIME.
1. Is it ethical to order food or have things delivered to your home?
With many food establishments and stores closed down, online shopping and food delivery is the best way these days to minimise contact with others and still get one’s needs met. However, there is still the dilemma of whether its right to expose the delivery person by having them come to your house (as it’s their choice to continue their jobs).
Caplan pointed out that it’s okay, as COVID-19 protocol dictates that the “delivery person leave the food at the door and go”. He also added that people should just remember not to “exchange paper money” or “have any physical contact”, suggesting that paying electronically would be ideal. Ultimately, just make sure you’re only ordering essentials.
2. I’m young and healthy; should I still follow lockdown and social distancing measures?
Absolutely. Firstly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has already emphasised that young people, though not the main target of the virus, can still be carriers and must think about others around them, especially the elderly and those susceptible to diseases.
“You should stay in,” Caplan remarked. “You should not be sitting in groups in public places. Remember, even if you’re young and healthy, you’re still at risk of turning into a disease vector who could infect others.”
3. Regarding children, is it alright to take them to the park or other outdoor spaces?
“Yes, but practice social distancing,” cautioned Caplan. Obviously, the decision to take children to public places like parks also depends on lockdown measures in one’s home country. If your government tells you to stay at home, stay at home!
“Let them run around, but keep them away from other kids,” Caplan admonished. “Watch out for your own child or someone else’s sneezing or coughing,” he said, adding that proper hygiene and distancing must be observed at all times.
4. I have to work from home and cannot take care of my kid during the day. Is it unethical to ask the nanny to watch them?
Ethically, the answer is no, as that could put both the nanny and your household at risk. They will be travelling to your home and could become infected along the way. “It’s not the risk of their being in the house, it’s the risk of their getting there,” Caplan explained.
Members of the same household need to remain together and only associate closely with each other, to decrease the risk of passing the virus.
5. Is it morally wrong or irresponsible to visit a sick relative (ill with something other than the virus) during the pandemic?
Yes, unless it is an absolute emergency or essential trip, where the sick relative may need food or supplies delivered to them or if they need assistance. Again, COVID-19 social distancing protocols come into play here—keep your distance and leave food or items on the doorstep, unless the sick person is unable to get up themselves or has had an accident or injury.
Always check with a doctor before visiting someone ill, as they may have an extremely weak immune system and may be highly susceptible to catching the infection.
6. Is it ethical to report someone who has symptoms but isn’t getting checked or treated?
In times of a pandemic, the answer to that question is a yes, said Caplan, adding that people who seem sick must take care of themselves and get medical help, so that the virus does not continue to spread to others. “Hopefully you can talk to them first before talking to a third party,” advised Caplan, noting that “in this case”—in the midst of a global virus outbreak—”I think it’s okay.”
7. Is it ethical to go to the doctor for issues other than emergencies?
That is a sound and absolute “no”. Critical hospital resources, personnel and equipment should be saved for COVID-19 cases as well as other serious illnesses, accidents or conditions.
Call your doctor if you have a medical problem, said Caplan, who also suggested medical consultations via Skype or other video calling platforms. “I think that’s going to linger on after the epidemic; there’s going to be a lot more telemedicine in the future,” he noted. “If there are appointments that have to be conducted in person but aren’t urgent—like annual checkups or six-month follow-ups on a hip or knee replacement—it’s better to postpone till later.”
8. Is it ethical to have sex with one’s partner during this time?
For Caplan, that answer is a “no”, “unless you’ve just been tested and waited five days”. Smooching is also a big no-no, as that’s a direct exchange or droplets. While partners can make consenting decisions regarding this dilemma personally and together, Caplan believes that engaging in sexual intercourse at the moment is “just too much of a risk”, as one partner may be infected.
Older people who are having sex are especially at risk or passing the virus onto their partners, if they are infected themselves. “You need to decide ethically if you wish to put your partner at risk to satisfy yourself,” was Caplan’s response.
When in doubt, choose restraint and safety. Follow the rules your health authorities and governments have laid out for you, and unless it’s absolutely essential or an emergency, the morally right thing to do is to stay at home. /TISG