The Ethics of Pandemics

It seems that the title to Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, has taken on even greater meaning now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Klein’s book is about the politics of the climate crisis. But the title applies equally to the sudden appearance of the novel coronavirus that spread so rapidly and extensively around the world that it quickly became a pandemic. Both phenomena constitute existential threats to humanity.


The human response to threat is sometimes peculiar. We respond directly to a direct physical threat such as that posed by a mugger in a dark alley. It’s the classic “fight or flight” syndrome. Both responses come from recognizing the threat and immediately acknowledging the necessary existential choice. Of course, passive acceptance is also possible, but that could be deadly as well as contrary to our impulse to act.

For now, the threat of the current pandemic is more immediate than that of the climate emergency. But to accept that urgency, one must either have direct experience—such as that of the emergency nurse who sees so many patients and her medical colleagues dying—or be able to accurately interpret the constant flow of news and evolving science. Most Americans do not have the first experience, and too many are incapable of the critical thinking needed to separate Fox News denialism and conspiracy theories from actual trends in the data on morbidity and mortality.

Indifference and Inconvenience

Most people who express pandemic denial do so by refusing to take precautions, such as maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask, and staying home. When the situation reaches crisis proportions, some express denial as anger, especially when cleverly organized by political partisans. The Trumpist lockdown-protesters in the Midwest, who demand that governors reverse stay-at-home and business-closure orders, are victims of political manipulation by billionaire operators whose only interest is to avoid the economic loss caused by the economic collapse. Those flag-waving AR-15 toting protestors with their signs demanding “liberty” and “Don’t tread on me,” gather in front of government buildings, indifferent to the danger they pose to themselves and others.

Lockdown.ProtestorsCrises and emergencies are always inconvenient. If one is inclined to deny the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, s/he will ignore the CDC Guidelines for avoiding the spread of the virus, to oneself or to others. ‘How dare that virus interrupt my vacation and cause me to take extraordinary precautions!’ The deniers, whether politically motivated or just unwilling to grasp the gravity of the situation, go out in public and express their indifference or denial by violating all the behavioral strictures that help control the spread of the virus.

My wife was standing at social-distance in the checkout line at Smith’s grocery the other day, mask and gloves on, when a man came up and stood so close behind her that she could feel his breath on her neck. She asked him to please step back and maintain the prescribed six feet of social distance. He immediately expressed anger, muttering a few words of resentful indignation, and moved to another line. It was as if he lived in a separate reality where convenience was the highest value, rising above life itself.


Fear is a sobering emotion, although it can easily turn into panic. Fear can easily lead to irrational behavior, which usually involves overreaction and indifference to the plight of others. Empathy implies understanding and recognizes the danger to others. The medical first responders in New York City and in slightly less intense situations all over the country directly experience the dangers to themselves of carrying out their mission to save the lives of strangers. They walk into the front lines of the pandemic intensely aware of the danger to themselves, because they are committed to practicing the highest ethic of medicine. They embody the ethic of empathy.

Compassion and Courage

michigan-nursesCompassion is deep empathy enacted. Humans are a distinctly ‘social animal.’ Our survival as a species rests on deep levels of cooperation. The broader human response to the tragedy that befalls victims of the novel coronavirus is a natural reaction. The psychological danger for the medical heroes on the front lines is analogous to the danger that befalls soldiers in combat. Surrounded by constant danger and death, they “soldier on,” driven by their compassion, despite any danger to themselves.

Despite the trauma, these medical heroes persist in their courageous compassion. Sometimes compassion is expressed when no risk to the compassionate person is involved. However, when the compassionate person acts directly to protect another by accepting their own immediate grave risk, great courage is revealed. Some find it surprising that so many people “rise to the occasion” and courageously enact their compassion. These medical heroes will suffer from PTSD.

Yet, when acknowledged for such action they reject the accolades with, “I’m no hero; I’m just doing my job.” They are heroes and that is part of the reason why. The compassionate impulse to help, to rescue, to save another despite the danger to oneself, is a potential in all of us.

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