A Moral Pandemic

For the second time this winter, it snowed around our home yesterday. The first time, it had all but melted within the day, but this time with heavier snowfall and colder temperatures it has stuck. Our garden remains covered in a blanket of white, and our in the street where people and cars have ventured, much of the compacted snow has turned to ice.

Just after lunchtime today I went out for a short walk. Only two streets from my house, I walked past a woman about my own age carrying two bags of shopping. As she made to cross the road, she slipped on a patch of ice, landing on her backside. Fortunately she was not injured, he shopping was intact and we got her on her feet and on her way, though noticeably slower than a moment before.

It’s a scenario many of you will have experienced before, helping someone back to their feet when they have fallen, or worse if you are the person taking a tumble. Usually it is something to laugh about, occasionally it can lead to more serious injuries, especially if the person falling is frail.

But this time, as I went over to help the woman back up, there was one thought which was front and centre in my mind; should I be going to help her at all?

You can probably all imagine why. Neither of us were wearing masks, and to help someone from the floor inevitably means getting close. As the COVID19 pandemic rages, and we are urged to wear masks and keep our distance from people, stopping to help someone off the floor is almost the exact opposite of what we should be doing to halt the spread of the pandemic.

Rightly or wrongly, I dismissed the thought as quickly as it came, but as I continued on my walk, it left me thinking about both what the thought (albeit fleeting) says about me as a person*, and the moral morass a pandemic leaves in its wake.

I think it is fairly easy to make an argument for helping the woman who has fallen back up from the floor. At the point she has fallen she is vulnerable, assisting her back to her feet reduces that vulnerability, and that is before considering whether she can get herself back to her feet alone. There is a potential scenario, given the chilly temperatures, in which she could be left on the floor and develop hypothermia or worse. Whether it be from a position of empathy, a sense of natural justice or even the more selfish angle of self-satisfaction, helping the woman from the floor can be considered the right thing to do.

And yet, there is the pandemic to consider. There is no doubt the rates of infections are rising, with hospital admissions and deaths following suit. To do what we can to reduce the spread of the virus can feel the ethical thing to do. As I went to help the woman today, I could not be certain of either her or my infection status, and risk passing the virus to her or catching it from her by my actions. While only one interaction between two individuals, if you scale up those interactions to the population, and the pandemic could quickly become impossible to control. I am assuming here that you can judge a particular scenario between two individuals on the consequences to a whole population, something you may well disagree with.

In the grand scheme of things, my example of the woman having slipped on the ice is a fairly minor and almost inconsequential dilemma, and it took me next to no time to make my choice. That is not the case with many more complex decisions to be made in response to the virus spreading. With finite medical resources and beds, who gets treatment and who does not? With panic buying and short supplies of food, should we ration? With limited supplies of a vaccine available, who should get it first?

The latter dilemma, the order in which to deliver the vaccine to the population, is certainly at the forefront of a lot of people’s thinking at the moment. While not universally popular, the UK government has chosen to vaccinate the elderly first, with health professionals second. The argument being the elderly are most likely to die should they catch COVID19, and health professionals are more useful disease free treating other people. At the same time they have chosen to stretch the gap between doses of the virus, in the hope more people get the first dose quicker, reducing if not eliminating the chances of catching and spreading COVID19 to others.

Alternative approaches have been put forward, including vaccinating young people first so they can get back to work and get the economy moving again, while in a similar vein an elderly relative of my wife has suggested giving the vaccine solely to young people because her generation have, to paraphrase, had a good run while younger people still have their lives ahead of them.

While rarely if ever advocated, you could also imagine a third approach involving a lottery system which randomly selects who will get the vaccine and when. Lacking the benefits of either of system when it comes to protecting one group or another as a whole, it does have the advantage of removing the moral decision of which group is more worth than another (although you might well call the whole system an cold, immoral system as it takes the humanity out of, well being human).

Undoubtably, there will be people who get sick and may die in one vaccine scenario who might not have gotten sick given an alternative approach. While the elderly are most likely to die from COVID19, young people have died as well, so the government’s current approach leaves those people vulnerable. With the alternative economy-friendly approach to vaccine distribution will definitely see significant numbers of older people die, but as the proponents of this approach argue, economic recessions lead to death across whole swathes of particularly the poor.

As much as politically I dislike the current government, I do not envy them the decisions they have to make on our behalf. Where my decision today to help a woman from the floor or not is relatively minor and of no real long term consequence (beyond me reflecting here on morality and myself as a person), the decision to vaccinate some and not others has real, potentially devastating consequences. For many, the pandemic is a combination of a deadly diseases and societal restrictions aiming to prevent its spread. What is discussed less often are the moral challenges a pandemic can force upon us. It can be easy and more comfortable to ignore these decisions or leave them to someone else, but that I feel is kicking things into the long grass. As my experience today has shown, ethical decisions can fall upon us in the most unexpected of situations, and in the future it might not be quite as simple a choice as at first it appears.

*For those interested, I do not think myself an amoral monster for having considered the pandemic at the same time as I went to help the woman. Not having considered the dangers to me and her would be reckless, even if I had any control over the thought to begin with. What would have worried me more, if I had walked on by as a result of my concerns, and it will take more than a global pandemic to see me lose that bit of my humanity.

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