Viruses are amoral. They don’t concern themselves with the goodness or evil of whom they infect. Viral sickness is a fact of life, not a judgment of one’s righteousness.
As humans whose senses of morality, ethics, human kindness and judgment are slightly more evolved (or existent) than that of non-sentient genetic capsules, I would hope that we would be beyond projecting morality onto viruses and those infected by them.
We’re not. Of course we’re not. But we can be.
In his op-ed “The Moral Meaning of the Plague,” New York Times columnist David Brooks writes “We’ll look back on this as one of the most meaningful periods of our lives. … The plague today is an invisible monster, but it gives birth to a better world.”
I realize that Brooks’ article is mostly concerned with how people respond to COVID-19 and how a pandemic is no time to be selfish. That’s a fine argument. By all means, we should be helping each other as much as we can while still observing appropriate safety measures.
It’s what Brooks fails to address, though, that worries me. The “morality” of any disease, too often, is a dog whistle insinuating that people living with that disease “deserved” to contract it.
It’s the same dog whistle that people use to insist that gay men “deserve” AIDS, that people who inject drugs “deserve” hepatitis C, that people who smoke “deserve” lung cancer, that overweight people “deserve” diabetes, that people who don’t have a happy-enough outlook on life “deserve” depression.
Illness and disability do not care why a person comes to contract them. HIV does not distinguish between sexualities — only “risk behavior” (a term which also has fraught moral implications when it’s disproportionately applied to people of certain sexualities). A cell developing insulin resistance doesn’t have the sentience to understand why it’s developing that resistance.
To ascribe human morality to a pandemic, and to write about morality in a pandemic in a way that does not specifically rebut dog whistle uses of disease morality, is to implictly say that people who contract the disease at hand deserved it.
This too easily spirals into a blame-and-shame cycle where survivors and especially victims of a disease lose their humanity and become one with the germ that sickened and possibly killed them.
Consider the case of Gaétan Dugas, the so-called “Patient Zero” of the AIDS crisis in North America. Dugas’ treatment — to the point of him becoming synonymous with AIDS — is largely due to the work of Randy Shilts, the journalist who wrote “And the Band Played On,” which is widely considered to be the defining work on the early years of the AIDS crisis in the U.S.
According to medical historian Richard McKay, Shilts’ portrayal of Dugas as a sociopath who knowingly and willfully infected his sexual partners had tremendous effects. States passed laws criminalizing even the unknowing transmission of HIV, and the false “fact” that gay men were simply promiscuous deviants was cemented in more people’s minds. Dugas was, for decades, consigned to history as Patient Zero and nothing more.
Next, consider the case of Mary Mallon — or, as she’s better known, Typhoid Mary. I am not going to deny that Mallon spread typhoid fever through working in kitchens after being told, as an asymptomatic carrier, she could not.
Mallon died still living under enforced quarantine. Her legacy has been one of disease, disability, destruction and death. “Typhoid Mary” is a shorthand for someone whose very disease makes them guilty; the very real woman whose civil liberties were repeatedly taken from her with little explanation is almost entirely forgotten.
The moral panic around COVID-19 is already here. We see it in racists blaming the disease on wet markets in China, in ableists insisting disabled people should be denied coronavirus-related care due to a “lower quality of life,” in columnists insisting that this virus is a teaching moment for us all.
If we are to have any moral moment in this pandemic, it needs to include having compassion for others. Nobody deserves COVID-19. Nobody deserves complications. Nobody deserves to have their very humanity equated with a disease we know so little about.
In his op-ed, Brooks writes “What role do you play in this crisis? What is the specific way you are situated to serve?” A role we can all play is to remember that enforcing our own morality on the world — especially a privileged morality that assumes everyone can work from home, everyone can self-isolate, everyone can afford to take time off work or household obligations if they fall ill — through projecting it onto the COVID-19 virus only hurts people.
It is very likely that we have not reached the worst of this crisis, according to immunologist Anthony Fauci. We still need the constant vigilance, physical isolation and hygiene measures public health agencies are promoting. But in this crisis, and especially if and when it worsens, we need to combat the moralization of disease and call out blaming language when we see it.
Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20 is a public health major currently at home in Sunnyvale, California. They long for the day when they can once again go to the park and use a swing set.