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Coronavirus, Moral Knowledge And Social Distancing

Italy Coronavirus
If you knew that going to a party would kill your next-door neighbor, would you still go?

In an op-ed for The Boston Globe, Mattia Ferraresi, a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, framed the challenge presented to Western societies by the coronavirus epidemic as one of acquiring and acting upon what he calls "moral knowledge."

Said Mr. Ferraresi:

Before the outbreak hit my country, I thought I was acting rationally because I screened and processed a lot of information about the epidemic. But my being well-informed didn’t make me any more rational. I lacked what you might call “moral knowledge” of the problem. I knew about the virus, but the issue was not affecting me in a significant, personal way. It took the terrible ethical dilemma that doctors face in Lombardy to wake me up.

Mr. Ferraresi wrote that he heard from a manager in the Lombardy health care system, among the most advanced and well-funded in Europe, that he saw anesthesiologists weeping in the hospital hallways because of the choices they are going to have to make. A doctor at a hospital in Bergamo, one of the cities with the most cases of Covid-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, told the newspaper Il Corriere della Sera that the intensive care unit was already at capacity, and doctors were being forced to start making difficult triage decisions, admitting people who desperately need mechanical ventilation based on age, life expectancy, and other factors. Just like in wartime.

Inexplicably, noted Mr. Ferraresi, the article with that crucial information was placed on page 15 of the newspaper, while the main headline on the newspaper’s front page relayed the political quarrels over the measures to curb the contagion.

Put another way, what Mr. Ferraresi was saying is that he, and countless others in Italy, failed to appreciate what the logical and foreseeable outcome of their actions would be on their society’s most vulnerable citizens.

They had knowledge, but until things reached a crisis point, not an adequate moral framework upon which to use that knowledge.

Is Mr. Ferraresi saying Italian society has become corrupted or is inherently immoral?

No, his key point was this:

What has happened in Italy shows that less-than-urgent appeals to the public by the government to slightly change habits regarding social interactions aren’t enough when the terrible outcomes they are designed to prevent are not yet apparent; when they become evident, it’s generally too late to act. I and many other Italians just didn’t see the need to change our routines for a threat we could not see.

This means that we Americans must recognize that for a short period of time we have the opportunity – if we act upon the moral knowledge we now have – to avoid these ethically devastating choices: How do we decide who gets an ICU bed and who doesn’t? Age? Life expectancy? How many kids they have? Their special abilities? Is the patient’s profession a relevant factor? Is it right to save a middle-aged doctor who will save more lives if he survives as opposed to a younger person who’s been unemployed for the last 12 months?

These are the kind of theoretical questions you are asked to weigh in leadership classes at business school. But this is not a personality test. It’s real lives, said Mr. Ferraresi.

Editor’s Note: As of Sunday, March 15, 2020 Italy’s death toll stood at 1,809.

The way to avoid or mitigate all this in the United States and elsewhere is to do something similar to what Italy, Denmark, and Finland are doing now, but without wasting the few, messy weeks in which we thought a few local lockdowns, canceling public gatherings, and warmly encouraging working from home would be enough stop the spread of the virus. We now know that wasn’t nearly enough warns Mr. Ferraresi.

The one area where we diverge from Mr. Ferraresi’s views is his statement: “When everybody’s health is at stake, true freedom is to follow instructions.”

One of the defects of our society’s response to this epidemic is that we seem to be substituting orders from the government for our own moral knowledge. We know traveling from a coronavirus hotspot to an unaffected area could bring the coronavirus to a new area – but we are waiting for the government to shut down travel. We know visiting vulnerable people heightens their risk and we know gathering in large closely packed crowds heightens the probability of transmission, but we do it anyway, as the pictures of the huge crowds at bars and entertainment districts demonstrate.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Sunday he would rather be criticized for "overreacting" than to watch the illness spread further.

"I would prefer as much [of a shut down] as we possibly could," Fauci said in an interview on NBC's Meet the Press. "I think we should really be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting."

He said the Trump administration has been "generally" following his team's advice, but that he needs to see more "social distancing" from the public.

"I think Americans should be prepared that they're gonna have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing," Fauci said.

Fauci added, "You're gonna have people who are going to go to restaurants anyway. But for the most part, and particularly, if I can say this, this is particularly appropriate and relevant for people at the higher risk. The elderly and those who have underlying conditions right now should really hunker down."

Our plea to our fellow Americans, and especially to our fellow conservatives, is this: You have no excuse. You must act upon the moral knowledge that travelling, gathering in crowds and making contact with others heightens the risk of coronavirus transmission to your vulnerable fellow citizens. The strangers you come into close contact with, the subway pole you grasp, the unnecessary face-to-face business meeting could lead to the death of your fellow citizens.

Now that you have the moral knowledge of the effects of your actions, go here for strategies from the Mayo Clinic that will allow you to effectively act upon your newly acquired moral knowledge.

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