Coronavirus and the Golden Rule

The Columbia Study

A study by Columbia University mathematicians estimated that if the United States had instituted aggressive shelter-in-place and social distancing requirements one week before they in fact started, as many as 36,000 lives could have been saved. Had the lockdown and social distancing order been given two weeks earlier, as many as 54,000 souls could still be alive.  

A caveat: The estimates are based on dense mathematical formulae, and the study has not yet been peer-reviewed. This means that it should not be used to guide clinical practice. However, nothing precludes using it to think about future personal practice in dealing with the pandemic, pending peer-review and certification of the accuracy of the mathematics. 

What do I mean?

Suppose the study is correct. We might be tempted to blame leaders who did not impose the restrictions until later, but that is fruitless: The dead are still dead. We face the same dilemma now and will face it for a long time to come: How can we balance opening society with saving lives? If the study is accurate, perhaps it offers some guidance. There may be value in considering stricter social distancing as we slowly reopen society.

 Staying at Home, Keeping our Distance: Two Views

How often do we hear—or say—that we’re tired of being kept at home, tired of keeping our distance and wearing masks in public. There are significant downsides to sheltering in place—a rise in domestic abuse being an important one. Even absent domestic abuse, “lockdown fatigue” remains a problem, and both our mental health and social needs and the perilous state of the global economy argue for some degree of “opening” society and returning to work. 

But there are equally compelling arguments for opening in very tightly focused ways and for maintaining stricter social distancing, masking, and stay-at-home when possible orders. The opening-up of the states is being handled sloppily in most instances, with no states meeting CDC guidelines for doing so. As a result, in nearly all the states, the rate of new cases of COVID-19 have not fallen to the level the CDC considers reasonably safe. Indeed, in many states, if not all, the rate of new cases is steady or increasing. Naturally, given the state of American politics, any discussion of the merits of the two viewpoints—open faster to save the economy and open slower to contain the pandemic—swiftly becomes partisan. Red versus Blue, Trump people versus non-Trump people (the majority). I’d like to take a thoughtful approach.

Flip the Debate

I do not want people who are infectious sneezing on me, coughing at me, singing around me, talking too closely to me, or violating my space (which has expanded to six feet). Nor do I want to do that to them. If people are required to be out and about (by their employer, for example, or because they’re deemed “essential” workers), I want them to have the safest possible conditions to move about or work in, and everyone else does too. 

This is simple justice. What I’m saying boils down to the Golden Rule, the single moral injunction common to all the world’s religions: Treat others as you want them to treat you.

Instead of debating on political (or economic) grounds, what if we think about the vexing question of how to open our economy safely as a question of morality? What if instead of “I’m tired of being at home and I need a paycheck,” we were to say, humbly, “By staying at home as much as possible and wearing a mask and socially distancing when I’m out, I am doing what I can to protect others as I wish to be protected”?