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Sep 7, 2021

The ethics of COVID disclosure and the unlikely events

Let’s say a student in your class tells you he has tested positive for COVID-19. The first steps are obvious: please stop coming to class, inform the University, and get medical advice. However, the next step is tricky. If you tell his classmates that he has tested positive for a communicable disease, you violate his right to privacy, and it is illegal under HIPPA. However, if you do not tell anything to anyone, you are sitting on information that could feel very important to the other students and their families as well as all those other people they may be in contact with. We prepare educators, so most program have a lot of field experiences, so the circle of potentially exposed includes children, who cannot yet get vaccinated. So, the student in question may infect one of his classmates, who will have no idea, go to a school for a field experience, and infect a child. The child would suffer the extremely rare case of severe childhood of COVID and die. I am not going to be responsible for a death of a child and am going to alert the rest of the students, and suspend the program’s in-person classes and field experiences.

That was my initial thinking, and it was wrong. Incidentally, most of the initial thinking about any complex problem is wrong. Those who favor the “gut feeling” I strongly encourage to think through their conundrums.

Like all ethical dilemmas, it has two sets of values balancing against each other. Unlike some of my friends-analytical philosophers, I am not interested in an abstract, universal solution applicable to all contexts. I would much rather consider it within a specific context of a large institution with specialized units dealing with special problems. When someone tells me – do not worry, we have a policy and procedure for these kinds of things, - I do not always find it within myself to completely believe it. It is just a function of a larger organization. Because we cannot know each other’s business, mistrust is easy and natural, while trust is difficult; it needs to be built specifically.

I am not sure of the exact math here. What would improve our collective trust is some sort of a disclosure: here is the protocol we use, and these are the probabilities of low risk vs. high risk. After all, many of us in higher ed do understand probabilities. But in general, 0.1% chance of a large disaster and 100% chance of a small disaster do not weigh equally; the latter outweighs the former. Our lives are filled with small disasters and we rarely experience large disasters. We should all think about consequences of our actions in probabilistic terms. We can be sure about some consequences, but other remain merely a possibility, sometimes remote.

The truth is that ethics is useless without some understanding of probability. Hence risk assessment is a probabilistic discipline. The student is not sick, just positive. Everyone in his class is fully vaccinated. All are required to wear masks all the time. The chances of an outbreak are actually fairly low. I should recognize that people in Risk Assessment are professionals and have the best interest of students in mind.

Should we include very unlikely events in our moral reasoning? We normally do not consider a possibility that while driving we may kill a pedestrian. Let us not stop driving because of it. Any action or non-action can go wrong and have disastrous effects.

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