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
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