covid coronavirus

Bioethics Forum Essay

COVID: Collective of Voices in Distress

I get off the phone with a dear friend and colleague in Italy, and the news is devastating. Health care workers dying, impossible choices of triaging limited resources, the real human toll is palpable in her voice. She says, this is not political, this is a public health “nightmare.” I then get on social media and a friend from high school is posting about the “hoax” and the political motivations behind COVID-19.

On another social media forum, colleagues with disabilities are triggered by the talk of triage and pre-existing conditions that raise serious questions about who and how health care allocation decisions might be made in the United States. Others are pointing out that telecommuting and remote access to classes is a disability accommodation that is often not allowed, but now that the “ableds” are impacted, universities and workplaces are finding ways to do it.  Still others are worried about how the working poor will survive quarantines and how the growing inequalities in this country will manifest in this particular time of crisis. So many ethical issues to grapple with in this moment, and so many standpoints on this public health crisis. And all of it is amplified and readily available through social media.

Some of these disparate standpoints are familiar to me as a child of immigrants from India. As long as I can remember, I’ve known that people have very different beliefs and convictions. Later, I learned that we sometimes see what we have been conditioned to see. There was the Christian fundamentalist who told my 15-year-old self that I was going to hell for being Hindu. And there was the Hindu fundamentalist who told my 21-year-old self that I had been polluted or somehow diluted by being born in America. Both thought they were trying to teach me and had my best interest in mind. I was the same person in different contexts and both of these people barely knew me. I am sure I also judge and jump to my own way of knowing. But as a clinical psychologist and clinical ethicist, I try and make space for alternate narratives and hypotheses, to gently call attention to assumptions, and to listen for what might be motivating people.   

But this COVID outbreak is unfamiliar too. There’s the free-floating anxiety of a global pandemic. The lack of trust. On all sides. People who don’t trust or believe science. People who don’t trust the government and, in particular, the current U.S. administration. People who don’t trust the media. And the U.S. was already polarized and paying attention to different sets of information before this pandemic. To me, the real “nightmare” scenario is when we stop working together and hole up in our partisan and in-group communities and forget that we are all in this together.  Literally. And while most of us will be okay after this virus runs its course, the most vulnerable among us may not. This is not the time for finger-pointing and grandstanding. It’s the time for respect of each other and for collective action.

Debjani Mukherjee, PhD, HEC-C, is a clinical psychologist, clinical ethicist and faculty member in the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College. Twitter: @DMukherjee9

For additional information and ethics resources on the Coronavirus, please visit our Ethics Resources page:

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  1. Debjani,

    I’m so glad you wrote this! And I stand in solidarity with you. The double whammyOf being a person with a disability and being in the senior citizens cohort really hits home for me and makes it vital that we take extra precautions for staying healthy, Practice social distancing and care for our neighbors and friends in our local communities. Love to you From our days at RIC!

    1. Beautifully captured! Most stores including online delivery is out by more than a week here. Most store aisles are empty especially food. Our neighbours are nice enough to check with us when they are on their way to store having known we have a toddler at home.

    2. Thanks Ginger! I am all in for “practice social distancing and care for our neighbors and friends in our local communities.” Miss you and hope you are well.

  2. I’m an english resident in italy (15 years plus) with 3 grown up girls me in florence,one in rome,another in the countryside and one in central london at the time of the shutdown ,all strictly abiding by it .fine apart from the bit from england yesterday hopeing to a have and create “herd immunity “where on earth does that leave the assisting medical staff at my 92 year old fathers nursing home in birmingham ? And any other fragile person contacter in england ?
    Obviously exposed .ltaly has factories that make tests ,masks, hazard suits , can even gear up to make the tracing follow up blood tests ( created last week in Singapore ) use its detectives ( not just health personnel) to cluster every subject after the shutdown if needs be ,but it seems it’s neighbors don’t seem to want the economic sacrifices ? There are alreadyn2 strains to this virus ,everyone needs to self isolate and turn of 5 g while their at it ,just in case.

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