The sanitary emergency presently affecting most countries across the World is highlighting the duties that each of us, as a member of a collectivity of individuals who share commodities, services and infrastructure, is called at times to attend to. In a well-functioning society paying taxes should not be enough to earn the right to be a citizen. Indeed, the "social contract" also demands us to, e.g., abide to laws. 

Unfortunately, the legislative system is sometimes too slow to adapt to sudden changes or situations that demand citizens to respond in coherent, constructive ways for the common good of all. The guiding principles in such situations are ethical in nature: even if you do not violate a law by performing some action, you should always ask yourself if your action has repercussions that are unethical.

The difficulty is that what may be unethical to one individual may not be so for another. I believe some guiding principles that simplify matters exist: one is that one person's freedom ends when another person's starts; another is that we should always consider whether we would be happy with what we do if it was done by somebody else. But these guidelines do not exhaust the range of situations we may be confronted with.

Covid-19 has made the above considerations more pertinent. The exponential nature of spreading of the virus is a powerful amplifier of the consequences of even small "violations" of principled, ethical behavior. In this post I wish to draw your attention to that fact, with a simple example. 

Joe goes to a party

We will consider Joe, who lives in a small town where the virus has not spread yet. He decides to attend to a party even if he knows there is a slim chance that he has been infected by a recent meeting with a relative from another town, who later turned out to test positive. Joe right now feels well, but he has developed a slight headache and slight coughing. Maybe he would do better to stay home, but he thinks he is not infected and he does not want to renounce to a fun night with friends. In fact he is indeed infectious: we will follow his decision to go to the party in terms of its consequences.

He goes to the party, but he tries to stay away from crowded places, keeps a safe distance with others, and tries to not touch too many things around: he is being a good citizen, considering the situation, and somewhere in the back of his mind he is guided toward acting as if he is in fact infectious. Still, he talks with a few folks and dances a little, and as he walks back home, he has infected four other participants. Not too big a deal, is it? They are young, and will probably recover quickly.

The next day Joe feels unwell, and testing reveals he is covid-positive. He should now inform all the participants to the party, but he feels guilty and refrains from doing this. Such an action is even worse than his participation to the party, and the results will be quite bad. In the matter of a week, each of the four infected individuals will infect on average a couple of family members; the latter, in turn, will infect a couple of colleagues at work or schoolmates within another week. This repeats in week three, and by week four, the participation to the party by Joe has produced a virulent cell in the otherwise covid-free town, consisting of 4+8+16+32=60 people. In the meantime an effective contact-tracing effort manages to contain the further spread of the disease, but in total the single spreading event caused by Joe and his failed reporting produces about 100 total cases. Of those, some do not even develop any symptoms; a few dozens instead fall ill for a significant length of time, with consequences that affect their health for many months to come. And three of them die.

Mark goes to a manslaughter

Now, let us consider something different, which we all dread and condemn in the strongest possible way - a terrorist act. Mark is a loner with a dysfunctional brain and a past history of domestic violence. One day, Mark goes to school with an AK-47 and starts shooting around. He kills three teachers and injures five students. 

The two above acts - the decision to party and the decision to massacre other individuals - are as different as they could be. But in terms of damage to society, Mark and Joe's actions have had a similar impact. Of course, all of us can identify with Joe's behaviour and somehow justify it, while none of us would have an easy time finding justification for Mark's actions. In terms of ethical principles this is reasonable, maybe, but the outcome shows that probably there is at the roots a failure of our ethical principles to identify in a rational way what is right and what is wrong, and how much so.

Drawing some conclusions

I guess the bottomline of this comparison is that we should be very, very careful with our actions in the presence of a disease with the potential of exponential spreading - for even the slightest careless act may result in extremely damaging consequences. Since much of the world today is in this same horrible situation, I think what we must spread is a clear understanding of the enormous amplification power of exponential growth, which applies to this situation.

Unfortunately, the above concept seems to be really hard to digest. This makes the situation really tragic. In Europe, for instance, the governments of many countries where are reported more than 10,000 new infections per day continue to this day to say that the situation is under control and that moderate restraining actions are required, to avoid harming the economy. True, large economic losses would also result in grave losses to the well-being of individuals. But economic losses can be recovered, and with a careful supporting action of the most vulnerable social classes they do not result in loss of lives. I think we should acknowledge that not preventing the loss of human lives when it can be done is a terrorist act, and accept the consequences of that ethical principle. Just my 2c.