Ethics in the Time of COVID-19

Joan Elise Dubinsky, Fellow, Rutland Institute of Ethics
Clemson University, August 2021 


Imagine that this is happening to you

Close your eyes and imagine that this situation is happening to you. Right now. 

You are putting yourself through school, relying upon grants, scholarships, loans, and what you can save from your weekly paycheck. In addition to a full-time academic load, you work part-time for a local, family run candy store. You like your boss, your co-workers, and the chocolates you sample; your customers leave the store with a smile on their faces.  Your boss has insisted that you follow every public health rule and every policy that Clemson has adopted that will help limit the spread of COVID-19.  Customers who come into the store without a mask are handed one to wear whilst they are shopping, along with a piece of freshly cut fudge. You feel safe and supported.

But there is one request that your boss has made that really concerns you. Your boss is the grandson of the store’s founders, who regularly come into the store to help in busy times. To protect them, your boss has asked that every employee report weekly on everywhere you have gone, who you have met, who you talked to, even who you sat next to in class. He explains that if anyone tests positive, he will do the contact tracing to keep his grandparents healthy. “I owe everything to my family and to my faith. Each of us is responsible not only to ourselves but to our community. I must do everything in my power to keep my grandparents—and everyone else’s grandparents—as safe as possible. Saving one person’s life is like saving the entire world.”

It just feels wrong to you, to report to your boss everywhere that you have gone and everything that you do during the week. You admire him and his business; you don’t want anyone to get COVID, but you have a life of your own to lead. You are not a child, and he’s not your parent.

What on earth are you going to do?

Navigating new ethical questions as we live with a pandemic

Since early spring of 2020, we have entered an age of tremendous global insecurity surrounding public health. The pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus impacts how we gather, how we work, how we communicate, how we celebrate, and how we mourn. We are all challenged by an extraordinary level of physical and psychological insecurity. How we are experiencing COVID-19 is not unique to us, here in Clemson. Everyone on our planet is facing the same challenges and same set of unknowns.  This is the real age of anxiety.

We are learning to work differently and efficiently, whilst mourning those whom we have lost. Some of us have coped with challenges gaining access to health care for ourselves, our elders, our children, and our friends and colleagues. We are constantly learning to be flexible and accommodating, by finding internal resources of resilience and ingenuity that we did not know we had.

Amid this time of great uncertainty, we find solidarity in recognizing that the pandemic affects every one of us. We help each other adjust and cope to a “new normal” whose boundaries and restrictions are ever changing. We are getting used to the idea that there’s no pre-pandemic “normal” that we can return to. The clock only marches forward.

The pandemic poses new and interesting challenges. We are finding new ways to provide psychological and physical safety and well-being for ourselves, our colleagues, our families, and our communities. We are challenged to trust in scientifically supported evidence about public health measures. We must navigate different ways to balance academic studies, work, and family obligations. We are learning to work virtually and, with appropriate caution, return to some form of hybrid and face-to-face classrooms and workplaces. We are learning to negotiate different policy, medical, legal, and political responses to social distancing, vaccination access, mask wearing, and access to private medical data. Unlike what our hearts may demand, our heads and our hands recognize that science and medicine rarely gives us absolute black and white answers. This is the real age of uncertainty.

Holding tough conversations

Some of the conversations about public health and individual rights and duties may be difficult, contentious, or politically sensitive. It’s hard to talk about the most sensitive and politically divisive of topics in ways that encourage honest, real, and impactful conversations. In such charged circumstances, how can we encourage ethical decision-making?

Civil discourse is simple in definition and difficult to put into practice. Civil discourse is the ability to converse about topics over which we disagree and to truly hear what each other is saying. Civility requires that we be mindful of the words we use and the tone and inflection that convey our messages. It’s not just what we say—but how we say it that impacts our meaning.

Understanding the situation that you are facing

But what do you do about your boss’s request to provide him a list of everywhere you have been and every person you have seen or spoken to – on a weekly basis? From your boss’s perspective, this is the best way he can protect his beloved grandparents, along with his employees, his spouse and children, and his customers. From your perspective, this additional requirement invades your own privacy. It is simply too much. No public health official has ever advised that everyone keep such a list—just in case they are exposed to the virus. Anyone would find it difficult—if not impossible—to prepare such a list every week and confirm that it was accurate and complete.

If we boil this situation down to its most simple elements, your boss’s requirement may help him believe that his family can be kept safe from a highly contagious disease. At the same time, this new requirement imposes obligations on you—as an employee—that are unusual, onerous, and invade your privacy. Having access to advance contact tracing information may provide some psychological support to your boss (and possibly to you!). This extra information could help your boss and his family feel better about keeping their candy store open and serving their customers. It might keep you employed.

However, sharing in advance contact tracing information also gives your boss a very intimate picture of your life beyond what you do during your part time work shift. How much about our lives should we share with our supervisors and employers? A list of everyplace that you have gone and every person you met during the course of one week provides a very clear picture of your character, your personal activities, your academic career, your political affiliation, your community engagement, your friendships, and even your romantic partners. Would you change how you lead your life and your everyday activities, knowing that you need to make a full account of your latest 168 hours to your boss? If your boss has access to this amount of private information about you, should your co-workers also be given access as well? How much do you really want to know about the other employees at the candy store?

So, what should you do? It’s really a five-step process. First, understand the “new” situation that is arising . Stay up to date and current with news and medical development surrounding the pandemic. Read and think deeply about how these changes impact your life and the lives of everyone at Clemson. Be alert to the context and how circumstances change our understanding of the impact of COVID. This is not the time to turn off your inquisitive mind.

Next, be as clear as possible about what troubles you. I call this the “itch.” When you identify with particularity what is troubling you and why this problem deserves attention now, you describe the essence of your dilemma. Though you want to do your part to keep everyone safe from a highly contagious disease, your boss’s request for weekly reports on your activities and personal contacts requires that you share private information with your employer and possibly your co-workers. You are fearful about how this information could be used or misused.

The third step is to use the language of ethics to describe the contours of your dilemma. We all have a mutual obligation to preserve the health of the communities in which we live. By keeping each of us as safe as we can be, we promote the good of our community and enhance the likelihood that everyone can contribute their best efforts to advance our individual and societal goals. However, by requiring an employee to share her private information in anticipation of contact tracing, we reduce individual privacy and increase public scrutiny and embarrassment. The result of your boss’s request is to privatize public health by asking untrained and well-meaning individuals to do the job of highly trained, specialized public health nurses and physicians. Ultimately, we could end up doing more harm than good.

Now, how do you decide what is the best course of action? When you identify the facts, issues, stakeholders, options, and their consequences, you can identify a few possible courses of action. You can test these options and examine their likely consequences and impacts. You can ask whether any of these options will pass the test of time. Are there other ways to maximize the health and safety of your boss’s grandparents and all others for whom we care deeply? Can a public health professional be asked to hold an educational session, sponsored by the candy store? Could student employees volunteer on campus to promote the basics of stopping the spread of viral diseases?

Finally, you gather the courage that you will need to take action. Remember, by doing nothing—by keeping silent—you acquiesce. Taking the high road requires courage, patience, and confidence. Talking with your boss is the first and hardest step.  Have confidence that you are prepared to engage in that tough conversation.

If I were a betting person—and I’m not—I would bet that your boss would be enormously proud of you for stepping forward and sharing your concerns. And together, you will find a much better solution.