I Don’t Want to Spread Covid-19. Can I Sit Out the Protests?

In normal times, I would feel an obligation to take part in the recent protests against police brutality. I’m worried, however, that these gatherings could lead to a coronavirus outbreak. Black Americans are suffering from Covid-19 at a disproportionately high rate — I don’t want to endanger the very lives that this movement is seeking to protect. I have done what I can to speak out in other ways, from signing petitions to making donations and even making a Black Lives Matter sign and carrying it for a solo march around my neighborhood (which definitely attracted a lot of laughter and scorn). I feel bad for not getting out there and standing up for what’s right. Is it ethical to support these protests only from a distance? Name Withheld

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How do you balance political progress and public health? Many philosophers would say there’s no easy moral arithmetic that would allow you to compare the two concerns. In 1965, when John Lewis, the young chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped lead a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., he did not consult first with his physician. Nor did he or the other protesters heed the advice of Maj. John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers, who warned them through a bullhorn that “it would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march.” The troopers then made sure that it would be — freely swinging whips and clubs. Among the injured protesters was Lewis, whose skull was fractured. The spectacle of peaceful marchers menaced by state violence is, of course, what made the protest so powerful and effectual.

Public-health issues take on another dimension in the pandemic; to catch the virus is to gain the capacity to spread the virus. Responsible protesters this summer have worn masks and tried to maintain some distance from one another. But public safety is jeopardized when law-enforcement officials use tear gas and other irritants that cause respiratory problems, leading people to cough or to remove their masks. It is jeopardized when riot police engage in “kettling,” boxing protesters into confined spaces and cutting off exits.

So far, it appears that the public-health effects have been more modest than some experts feared. Massachusetts offered additional free coronavirus testing in mid-June to anyone who had recently attended a large gathering, and the results were said to be within the range of statewide numbers. New York City health officials say that they haven’t yet seen an uptick. It no doubt mattered that the rallies were outdoors; it may have helped that the protesters were typically moving. Luck may have played a role, too. We can’t know if the story will be the same with other large protests, especially if a false sense of safety leads to less caution. It’s entirely possible that some people who wouldn’t otherwise have been infected will become infected and infect others; it’s possible that some will die.

But not protesting also has significant costs. Our country seems to be on the cusp of necessary reforms, not just in policing but in other areas where racial injustice is pervasive, and careful analysis by social scientists tells us that protests of the right sort can spur political change. We shouldn’t assume that this summer’s political energy can be recaptured when vaccines become available. Many people believe that, at least for this generation, it is now or never.

You wonder, reasonably enough, whether it will be worth the risks. Your own contribution, by itself, is unlikely to make a significant difference either to the spread of Covid-19 or to the process of reform. But if your individual impact was all that mattered, you wouldn’t do anything much in politics, including voting, where one vote rarely shifts the outcome. The right question is not: What contribution am I making? The right question is: Am I taking part in a process that’s making a positive contribution over all?

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Leave aside the fact that the possible gains and losses are extremely hard to model. Even if we knew the net long-term epidemiological effects of participation, on the one hand, and the net long-term effects on health of better policies, on the other, we wouldn’t have captured everything important. Had no one ever paid costs in health and mortality for political change, we might still be living with slavery or Jim Crow.

The calculus is complicated in this case by the fact that the health costs of protests may end up being borne, in part, by people who didn’t choose to participate — who didn’t choose, as protesters often have, to take an individual risk of serious injury or death for a chance at a significant advance in justice. It’s further complicated by the fact that there’s no bureau de change that tells you how much public health to trade for how much political equality. Rational people can disagree about the assessments they reach.

And — a final point — different people are going to be differently situated here. If you’re going home to tend to someone in the class of the most vulnerable, you would have an individual reason to stay away in order to meet your responsibilities to that person. Absent such considerations, if you think large-scale protests are important, you can reasonably take part in them, observing all the necessary precautions — and urging others to do the same.

I work for a fast-growing health care company. Recently I referred a friend of mine for an open position, and she was offered the job. After she accepted the offer, my friend told me she intends to keep her current job while also working for my company. (Because both firms allow for remote work, she feels that she’ll be able to balance time for each.) This arrangement of two full-time positions is clearly against company policy, which requires, among other things, disclosure and approval of all other employment. My friend intends to keep her plans a secret from both her employers. I have advised her against this decision, but she remains undeterred. I’m worried about the potential fallout for my friend but also the potential that my professional reputation could be tarnished if her deception comes to light. Should I warn my employer? Name Withheld

In violating the terms of her employment, this person is taking advantage of a company that trusts employees to work unsupervised at home, in a way that’s unfair to others who don’t abuse the trust. But she’s also letting you down: You referred her and, in some sense, vouched for her, in the expectation that she would devote her full-time attentions to her new position. No decent friend would do what she’s doing. There are many ways that her deception could come to light: People from one company can talk to those at another, and company directories can increasingly be found online, anyway.

If the details were otherwise, we could discuss the tension between what you owe your employers and what you owe your friend. But given that she’s recklessly forfeited the trust that friendship is based on, you’d clearly be within your rights to alert your employers. Because the consequences of your doing that could be severe, though, you should offer her the choice between voluntarily ending her double-dipping and your ending it for her.

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