Welp. We’ve got a pandemic on our hands now, and some of us are handling it better than others. Tesla CEO Elon Musk for instance, handled it by tweeting that coronavirus panic is “dumb” and emailing his employees to tell them they’re more likely to die in a car crash than to die of the virus. To many of us—though far from all—it’s obvious that Musk’s is a laughably feebleminded and emotionally stunted perspective, and no actual debate is necessary. But Musk is, it appears, an asshole. He may not be a full-time asshole, but seems to be handling the crisis the way an asshole would. If you think Musk is right, it saddens me to report that you too are experiencing symptoms of acute, coronavirus-induced asshole-ism.
To understand how not to be an asshole in these extraordinary times, you may need a primer on some strange concepts. “The amount of kindness and patience and discipline that we are going to have to practice here is not quite the American way,” said Rena Conti, a research scholar at Boston University focused on public health policy. She described these as, uh, “unfamiliar concepts” to most people living in the U.S. So let’s dive into the ways in which these concepts will be manifested over the next few months, and what they will mean to you, the aspiring non-asshole.
Understand that this is mainly about old people dying, and go out of your way to help them not die
By now, there have been approximately a million explanations of what it means to “flatten the curve”—a way of describing the public health goal behind the collective effort we’ve all been roped into. The takeaway is that the virus lives in the U.S. now. A lot of people are going to get it, and a small fraction of those people are going to have serious cases that require hospital or even ICU stays. You, the person reading this, will probably be fine, but if huge numbers of older and immunocompromised people who are at higher risk come down with COVID-19 at the same time, our hospitals are going to be overrun. If that happens, there will basically be death panels (Italy is hurtling toward them now), and many more people will die than if we can slow the rate of infection by staying home as much as possible. This is that "social distancing" you keep hearing about.
According to Alex John London, Clara L. West Professor of Ethics and Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University, “Our individual actions can help to create a blanket of protection for the most vulnerable people among us. By practicing social distancing we can create a safer environment for those who are at the greatest risk from the virus.” So in short, it’s really not about you, healthy young millennial. It’s all fun and games to try to game out, in non-pandemic times, when the boomers will be dead so their self-obsessed generation won’t wield disproportional power political over the rest of us anymore, but it’s another story when you’re talking about condemning thousands of elderly people to drawn-out deaths that can feel like two weeks of asphyxiation.
That’s why you need to wash your hands, not go to your office, and stay six feet away from strangers.
Don’t go to bars, and if you must go to a restaurant, get takeout or delivery
And tip extremely well. All of this is non-negotiable.
While we’re on the subject, if you’re on the more affluent side of things, keep paying your dog-walkers, nannies, personal trainers, personal karate senseis, and any other service workers who are about to feel the pinch from social distancing.
Shop like you want to be comfortable at home for a while, not like you’re in a zombie movie
I know you think it’s cute to talk about how “the apocalypse is upon us!” but I promise, I’m way more obsessed with the apocalypse than you, and even I don’t have a food stockpile beyond the usual two weeks of food that fits in a regular pantry, or more than two week’s worth of toilet paper in my house. But it was pretty irksome the other day when my wife had to drive out of her way to go to the rich-people grocery store in search of toilet paper because our normal-people grocery store didn’t have any left.
Understand that your neighborhood supermarket is not about to close—it’ll only run out of stuff that people buy too much of. Grocery stores in Italy have been open this whole time, and that’s not showing any signs of changing anytime soon.
Hoarding is also tricky, ethically speaking. “Whether someone uses too many resources is a matter of them taking more than their fair share given their legitimate needs,” according to philosopher and applied ethics lecturer Mark Wells of Northwestern University. To figure out if someone is an asshole due to hoarding, we first have to know if they have “legitimate needs given their circumstances.” For example, you might see someone with 40 packages of toilet paper in their cart, but as Wells pointed out, they “might be gathering supplies for many people”—maybe they buy supplies for a homeless shelter.
While that's probably not most people, just know that if you yell at someone who looks like they might be hoarding, there’s a non-zero chance you’re actually the asshole.
Be careful around kids even though they probably won’t get sick
Kids don’t get serious cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But that doesn’t mean you should cough on them for laughs. According to Kao-Ping Chua, a pediatrician and researcher on overuse of health care at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, “they're really, really good at spreading germs in general.” According to Chua, when doctors treat kids, they’re treating several people. “We’re not just looking at the kid in front of us. We have to think about the fact that that kid depends heavily on a family, and if a family member gets sick, then the kid is in bad shape.”
Don’t freak out when you learn that someone you know has the virus
It’s inevitable that people are going to fume about acquaintances not washing their hands enough, and they’re going to connect that to serious or deadly cases of COVID-19 without ever knowing if that connection is real. “This is especially true when it comes to cases we hear about through social media which are nearly always distorted or de-contextualized,” Wells said. Just look at the fit everyone had when they wrongly became convinced that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had given the virus to Trump. Imagine that mess, but in a furious DM session among your friend group.
But if there is any finger-pointing to be done, it’s at the government, according to London. “I think that blame is a perfectly reasonable attitude to have toward political leaders who have an affirmative social responsibility to make sure that the resources and power of the state are invoked to secure the health and welfare of the citizens who depend on them,” he said.
Be nice to health care workers
If you do get sick, from Chua’s perspective, there’s another person who would like you to not be an asshole in a situation like this: your doctor. “It’s always nice when patients are empathetic,” he told me. “It’s frustrating to be told that there aren’t enough tests, but it absolutely makes it worse if there’s a lot of anger at that. It’s not like there’s anything we can do about it.”
Resist the urge to share information that might not be true
Part of being a nation of rugged individualists is that it’s our right to hate the government, and get our news from InfoWars if we want. If you prefer to get your coronavirus scoops from a QAnon message board, and you go around conspicuously shaking people’s hands to show solidarity with President Trump, fixing your behaviors is way beyond the scope of this article. But if you’re on the fence about whether to become a conspiracy theorist, please don’t start now.
London recommends only “sharing high-quality information from the WHO, the CDC, or centers of excellence that specialize in infectious disease,” and added that we can play a role in countering misinformation by helping put more high-quality information out in the world.
While you’d be right to take everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth with a grain of salt, right now is probably the time to err on the side of trusting our national and global health organizations more than you otherwise might, simply because this is a fast-moving and consequential situation, and they have a lot of information and resources that your favorite YouTuber does not.
Don’t panic about the what-ifs
If you’re anything like me, you’ve started to wonder at what point you may have to make some really bleak sacrifices. How certain do I have to be that I’ve been exposed before I isolate myself from my own wife? Should I intervene and potentially get exposed if I suspect someone is intentionally spreading the virus?
“The dynamics of such a situation are complex and we can exacerbate the situation both by being too aggressive and, perhaps counter-intuitively, by being too self-sacrificing,” Wells told me.
This is doubly true in regards to even scarier nightmare scenarios. Let’s say the hospitals do fill up, and you end up getting sick and you have to be sent to some overflow facility. If you’re like me, your brain starts to spin out of control when you contemplate what-if situations like this. There’s been a shortage of tests, so what if there’s a shortage of necessary drugs, and I’m lying next to someone who seems much more sick than me. Am I an asshole if I don’t let them have my life-saving medication?
Wells again: “But the question is also tricky because the fundamental philosophical issue here— how should we balance our interests with those of others?—is longstanding and difficult. My own take is that we never lose our responsibility to respectfully care for others, even when our own circumstances are dire. Meeting that responsibility may require self-triage in some circumstances. But that responsibility also extends to ourselves and, in the face of bad behavior by others, we may ethically protect our interests. However, we should never forget that avoiding the worst outcomes for ourselves and others will require cooperation.”
So my plan is to try my hardest to go with the flow if something like this happens, as difficult and terrifying as that sounds.
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