By Richard Musaazi,
Voluntary cooperation is needed during this crisis. Laws and political action alone will not save us. An effective response to the pandemic requires ordinary people making sound ethical decisions.
Why is ethical action critical?
In the face of a pandemic police enforcement can only do so much. Ethical decision making by ordinary people becomes crucial.
Why is this so challenging?
Justine Lumumba had to ask law enforcement agencies to arrest any member of the NRM found flouting the covid-19 guidelines during the NRM party primary elections, and we’ve all seen the images coming out from Kampala streets, ethical decision-making in response to a pandemic is not easy. Many people are simply not taking the crisis seriously enough.
One of the reasons for this is confusion. Rules change almost daily, meaning some people won’t know the latest requirements. Others might not appreciate the stakes involved with their behaviours, and that it is not only their own health they are risking.
Also, rules can be ambiguous. For example, we all saw what happened during the recent NRM party Primary elections where guideline where not followed also what happens if you’re keeping an appropriate distance from others at the beach or park, and it starts becoming crowded? Who should leave? Should those who arrived first have priority? Or should those who have had “their turn” move on?
In ambiguous situations, people take cues from those around them. If we saw others interacting normally at the park or bar (before they were closed), we could conclude it’s probably okay. We might also wonder if there’s any point in obeying the rules if others aren’t.
Drastic measures needed to keep populations apart and slow the spread of the corona virus could remain in place for months. That’s posing the difficult questions, are the security guards the answer?
The signs from Asia, where the disease first appeared, aren’t encouraging. China and Hong Kong have been mobilized since January. The strain is showing, with complacency emerging as the first wave of infections ebbs. Imported cases are on the rise, raising the risk of a second wave.
No one knows the precise secret to sustaining good behaviour in a pandemic of this scale and potential duration. Complicated ethical issues arise around personal freedoms and privacy. But we know from studies of past outbreaks, including severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2002-03, that there are steps authorities can take, including communication and targeted financial support that allow everyone to act responsibly.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of individual conduct when vaccines are unavailable, the supply of antiviral drugs and ventilators is limited, and transmission of the virus can happen before symptoms set in. With carriers hard to spot, social distancing — staying home, in essence — is the single most effective means of holding back the spread,
Getting people to behave when danger is real and present isn’t as troublesome as getting them to act before and, especially, after the peak. That’s a problem when some risk may well remain until an effective vaccine is released — perhaps 18 months from now,
So what does Asia’s experience tell countries that are just embarking on a period of indefinite shutdowns?
Singapore and Hong Kong, trading cities that depend on the movement of people, are especially vulnerable once borders reopen. Neither experienced a real first wave of infections, so wouldn’t be on China’s war footing either.
We have also learned that coercion works — in the short term. It’s unclear whether it can be effective for long or indeed at all outside China, where drones monitored mask usage, roadblocks were put up and people with mild infections were separated from their families in mass isolation centres. Success in reducing infections doesn’t make such measures sustainable, or desirable.
This brings us back to personal conduct and responsibility. Culture may matter less than is often considered.
Finally there are no easy answers to the myriad moral challenges that COVID-19 thrusts upon us. However, here are my five rules of thumb:
- Common sense ethics still applies – and the stakes make it more important than ever. Never lie about or conceal your history or infection status. Comply strictly with authoritative directives about quarantine.
- Stay informed about the latest rules.
- Never force your decisions on other people. Even if you aren’t personally concerned about social distancing, acknowledge that others are entitled to their space.
- If others are behaving recklessly or inappropriately, try to engage with them constructively. Outrage can be appropriate, but understanding can be better at changing minds.
- Gird yourself for the long haul. Fatigue can set in over long periods with changing rules. As the weeks in a state of emergency turn into months, we can be worn down and become less diligent in our ethical decision-making.
Richard Musaazi – Private Investigator
Twitter – @musaazi22