On Friday I played soccer at a park. Then on Saturday evening my wife and I went and got some drinks and dinner with three other friends.
We did make concessions to the pandemic: We walked to the wine bar, avoiding public transportation or Uber. As we talked about the coronavirus — because what else is there to talk about right now — the five of us made sure we didn’t touch each other or share drinks. I got compliments on the contortions I made to scratch my face with my sleeve instead of my hands. We vigorously deployed my wife’s 62% alcohol lavender hand sanitizer.
But still, we bought hamburgers and milkshakes that servers handed to us, ate them at tables which would soon seat other customers, used trays and glasses that others would soon use, and walked home feeling a lot better than we did having stayed inside all day.
Then I woke up on Sunday morning and learned that someone I knew — someone I spend a lot of time around and had had a beer with on Thursday — was displaying all three of the most telling symptoms of the virus: fever, coughing, shortness of breath. He hadn’t yet been tested, but someone at his gym had, and came up positive. All of a sudden, I had to stare something straight in the face: I might have it, and might have infected the other patrons of the wine bar, the servers, or even my friends.
This pandemic has transformed just about every choice we make into an ethical conundrum. Ordering delivery, going to the grocery store, seeing other people, seeing your own partner — nearly every basic thing we do must now confront the question, Will that infect me and perhaps cause me to infect others?
I live in the UK, where the government has, on the advice of scientists, steered clear of the strictest measures of social distancing (though that may soon change). I have no idea if my symptomatic friend actually has COVID-19. Even if he does, I have no idea if I have the virus — at the moment I present no symptoms whatsoever. And even if I have it, I have no idea if I infected anybody else.
As I now commence isolation, I’m left to think about every single person I’ve interacted with in some way in the past several days, and who they’ve interacted with, and who they’ve interacted with, and who they've interacted with. How many of them are diligently washing their hands, or avoiding large gatherings, or staying away from crowded public areas such as airports? I’m reaching out to those I can think of, but how many will respond with appropriate caution? How many of them have compromised immune systems? What about their loved ones? And I now realize that a very large number of people — in China, in Italy, in Boston, in Seattle, in anywhere — are probably pondering versions of this very thing, or probably will soon. (If you have an interesting story to tell about it, I am at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.)
Others have written eloquently of the importance of social distancing. But the scale and scope of this is something every single one of us is having to grapple with. Things that felt like a dumb overreaction a week ago — “Canceling vacation? Really?” — now feel hilariously quaint. Or if they don’t, they will soon.
If you still can’t quite believe that you need to take these measures, or that people’s lives may hang in the balance, or if you still think that it will be okay because the numbers where you live aren’t so bad yet, I am not here to scold you.
But if you do go out, and you do risk infecting somebody else, you may feel the guilt — and the fear — that I’m struggling with right now. Trust me, it’s not worth it.