On Thursday evening, Boris Johnson announced that the UK government is moving into the delay phase of its Covid-19 plan. The aim is to now ‘flatten’ the peak impact of the virus. Some had anticipated the immediate closures of schools and a ban on mass gatherings, in line with Europe and much of the US.
But it didn’t arrive. Instead, those with a new, persistent cough or fever were asked to stay home for seven days; schools and offices would remain open; sporting events could, at least in theory, go ahead. The only things the prime minister advised to cancel? School trips abroad and cruises for the over seventies.
It was far from a hard-line approach in tackling the outbreak, and it’s received criticism from some quarters. Instead, a softer, step-by-step plan has been put forward. The UK’s chief medical advisor, professor Chris Whitty, warned that premature action could lead to ‘corona fatigue’: public enthusiasm for curbing the outbreak’s spread would wane just as it hit its peak.
There’s also the issue of social isolation: should we stop visiting sick, vulnerable or elderly relatives, even if we show no coronavirus symptoms? Whitty recommended against a self-imposed familial ban. “It has big practical implications,” he said. “And may lead to loneliness and other issues which are clearly very undesirable.”
Cough, fever, respiratory problems, aches and pains are all symptoms of coronavirus. Loneliness, however, has yet to be named as one of them. In the wake of Thursday’s emergency Cobra meeting, Public Health England released new guidance for those self-isolating: no office, no public transport, no walks for seven days. Meanwhile, it advised those suffering from coronavirus to stay at least two metres away from others in their own home.
In the coming weeks, it’s likely that more and more of us will be forced indoors, potentially with little work, socialising, exercise and fresh food. It raises the question: what impact will all this have on our mental health? “We know being told to stay indoors and avoid others can be a very daunting prospect,” says Stephen Buckley, head of information for mental health charity Mind. “If you do have to self-isolate, it’s good to have a plan about looking after yourself.”
Buckley stresses that maintaining social contact is crucial if you’re in a week-long exile from the outside world. “It’s vital for maintaining wellbeing. Make plans to have regular chats with friends and family over the phone or on Skype.” There’s the issue of mental stimulation, too – and it goes further than daytime TV and Netflix binges. “Keep your mind active. Consider trying an online course, or see if your local library has an app you can use to borrow books, audiobooks or magazines.”
But there’s a balance to be struck between our own mental and physical health and as the outbreak mushrooms. Life under coronavirus is certain to throw up many ethical quandaries, with our working, social and home lives all taking a hit.
For example, for those without symptoms, is it morally acceptable to go to the pub with friends, given the risk of unknowingly contracting and spreading the disease? For one Harvard moral philosophy professor, there simply isn’t a dilemma. “A policy requiring everyone to avoid non-essential contact with others that would be close enough to communicate the virus seems totally justifiable,” explains Thomas M Scanlon. “Perhaps this doesn’t cover sitting outdoors with a pint, a metre or two away from companions, but my recollection is that most pub evenings are not like that.”
Scanlon, author of What We Owe To Each Other, argues that we should consider refraining from visiting sick loved ones, too. “Given the risks, particularly to those in vulnerable conditions, being without symptoms does not exempt one from the precautions. No doubt we have a psychological tendency to think that if we don’t have symptoms then we must be all right. But that tendency has to be resisted.”
Anyone who attempted the weekly shop in the past week will know that pasta and toilet roll are increasingly becoming like gold dust. Is it fair to stockpile on food, when others might need it more? “No, is the short answer,” argues Debbie Roberts, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. “Ideally, we should be looking out for each other in a community and not taking more than our fair share.”
But there is an ethical debate to be had. “With everyone starting to panic buy, my brother became very worried,” reasons Sheffield University academic Max Khan Hayward. “He ended up buying extra cleaning products for our elderly parents. In terms of ethics, he was acting as a good son by looking after his family. But in terms of impartiality, and treating everyone in the world the same, it was a problem. There’s a conflict there: we have obligations to everyone in society, but we also have those to our family. It’s a balancing act.”
Hayward’s friend delivers groceries for Instacart in the US. He explains that she now describes her work as being “on the frontline” amid the outbreak. But for those self-isolating, is it fair to risk infecting drivers and Deliveroo riders with the disease? “It would be much worse if they went to the shops and spread the virus,” Hayward argues. “They have to eat, so deliveries are the best option. We of course have respect for medical workers, but hopefully society will now have more for those in the gig economy, those who are providing a valuable service while putting their health on the line – delivering food to keep people alive.”
Over the next few weeks – and months – it’s likely we’ll face many of these moral posers as more and more of us face the everyday reality of coronavirus. “If you’re concerned about how you ought to ethically act, it helps to be as informed as possible about the relevant facts,” says Roberts, who adds that our collective aim should be to help ‘flatten the curve’ of the outbreak. “We know that older people and those whose immune systems are compromised in some way are more vulnerable, so we should be especially careful to try and keep these people safe.”
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