What’s it like to be (with) a superspreader? A note on the ethics of contagion

We’re used to the trope that our personal actions don’t make much of a difference. Arguably, in tackling climate change it’s not my choice to take an individual flight that makes things better or worse. In the current pandemic, however, nothing could be further from the truth. If I happen to be infectious, taking a flight these days might turn me into a superspreader, setting off a chain of infections that might harm a great amount of people. While we normally have to adapt to the world, the potential of spreading a virus like that has the uncanny effect that the (social) world, suffering infection, ‘adapts to us’, the one spreading. Of course, there are good reasons to avoid labelling individual people as superspreaders, but the fact remains that my individual behaviour might contribute to large-scale infections. The possibility of spreading the virus makes a number of very common habits doubtful and raises a number of moral questions. If I am contagious, then I should take precautions so as not to harm others. Therefore it’s not surprising that we find ourselves confronted with the recurrent advice to wash our hands and stay at home. However, even if the precautions to be taken are individual actions, they require a supportive social setting and compliance. If my employer, for instance, coerces me to work without taking precautions, the blame should be placed accordingly. Thus, new kinds of responsibilities emerge. In what follows, I’d like to consider some aspects of such responsibilities.

Being harmful. – In spreading the coronavirus, we cause harm. The idea of being alerted to the fact that one was responsible for such a spreading is enormously unpleasant, to say the least. While we might not want to attribute moral responsibility to a spreader, we will deem it epidemiologically important to track such a patient. So while such a spreading might not count as a (voluntary) action because it is not intended, it requires us to see ourselves as a cause of harm. That said, being involved in such an event might count as a case of (bad) moral luck and can hardly be dissociated from moral considerations.* Now the assumption that we are merely involuntary causes in such events no longer holds once we know that we are in a pandemic. In this case, I ought to take precautions. A failure to do so would strike me as morally blameworthy. So if I neglect hygiene measures (and end up spreading the virus), I am behaving irresponsibly and blameworthily. However, and this is the point I want to highlight, my fellow citizens and those responsible for living and working conditions in particular also have moral duties. Collectively, we might be said to have the duty to mutually enable each other to take necessary precautions. Now what does this amount to?

The moral status of spreading and spreading advice. – Advice such as “wash your hands!” and “stay at home (whenever possible)” is certainly helpful and ought to be followed in our current pandemic. Yet, it is a double-edged sword. On the one, hand it promotes risk aversion. If people comply, they might indeed prevent spreading and thus create a safe environment. On the other hand, it can be stigmatising. Given that at least staying at home comes at quite a price for some, we must bear in mind that calling out noncompliance might stigmatise and harm others, too. With the lifting of the lockdowns, we not only see people prematurely hasten ‘back to normal’, we also see a growing divide between those complying and those not complying with the restrictions. This divide is not helpful for either side. As I see it, people can only comply successfully with restrictions in a supportive environment. While it is true that individual actions can make a lot of a difference, individuals must have a chance to balance their compliance with the costs that arise. For a tenured professor like me, for instance, it’s easy to stay at home. But that is worlds apart from asking compliance of a shop assistant, who might be sacked if she fails to expose herself to hoards of potentially infectious customers, frowning at her for not wearing her mask correctly. So while everyone needs to consider themselves as a potential cause of harm to others, we need to create an environment in which we enable such considerations. Calling out others will more likely provide an incentive to shift the blame.

What is a supportive environment? – No matter what strategy (if any) your government is following, we need to comply with certain restrictions, if we want to prevent harming people through spreading the coronavirus. A supportive environment is one in which we can comply without harming ourselves. If we ignore the needs of children for a moment, one of the greatest factors that make compliance with lockdown restrictions difficult is the fact that we have to work and rely on other people’s work (to supply for our needs). Thus, we need to make sure that our working conditions allow for compliance. It is here that see a great number of difficulties. Let’s briefly highlight two issues:

  • The right to protect yourself from harm. – Compliance can only be demanded insofar as people can comply without harming themselves, be it economically or with regard to their health. Now from the very beginning of the corona crisis it was obvious that a number of people seem to have no effective means to protect themselves. If it is true that being indoors with other people is one of the greatest risks of infection, then care workers are exposed to an enormous danger of infection. Indeed, recent data shows that most COVID-19 deaths are occurring in this profession. If confined spaces are problematic, then what about schools, shops, public transport and the like? (While it might be ok to go shopping, it’s queite another question whether shop assistants are really well protected.) Perhaps with the exception of the medical sector, this seems to be largely in keeping with ongoing class issues. As I see it, our societies and the respective employers in particular are often not providing a safe working environment. But how can we expect compliance if we allow for such an amount of disregard within social settings, firms and institutions?
  • The duty to prevent spreading. – Is there a moral duty to prevent spreading? I guess, there is if we can do it without harming ourselves. This is why many people (myself included) consider the lifting of many lockdown measures as premature, especially in that they seem to incentivise outright blameworthy behaviour of crowds gathering to protest for individual liberties or whatever. But besides such aberrations there are more subtle cases. In mid-March, for instance, a colleague returning from a high-risk area was reproached for potentially causing “panic” among students by asking them to keep a safe distance. While I think that causing panic would be bad, I also think that universities ought to prioritise providing a safe environment. Thus, it is vital that universities and indeed other institutions follow policies that enable individuals to act in compliance with preventive measures. While most universities have now moved their education online, they are partly pushing for moving back on campus asap. While eventually returning to in-person education seems sensible and desirable, such moves might also incentivise an unhealthy competition, incentivising premature steps.

So in many cases we might witness (or at least have witnessed) that people are not complying with preventive measures. However, when judging the morality of harmful behavior, we must ask whether they are acting under conditions that allow for compliance in the first place. As much as I am upset to see people behaving in ways that might harm others or themselves, when passing moral judgement of their individual actions, we must bear in mind that the responsibility for enabling preventive behaviour is a collective sort of responsibility. Although I could cause enormous harm by spreading the virus, my actions to prevent such harmful actions have to rely on collective support. In a nutshell, it’s probably more appropriate to blame certain groups, firms and institutions than individuals. Both taking precautions and easing restrictions should be implemented such that these actions allow for mutual support.

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* Which reminds me of an intriguing discussion of Adam Smith on the so-called piacular by Eric Schliesser.

PS. Many thanks to Justin Weinberg for suggesting an important revision in my phrasing.

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