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Self-Isolation - an ethical test?

The word ‘self-isolating’ was not really in my vocabulary until the coronavirus outbreak burst upon us. It makes some sense that people who have the infection should be isolated, and those who display symptoms or are recently returned from the worst affected places should self-isolate. Originally, it seemed a little over-hyped to me but events appear to be proving me wrong.


Some forms of self-isolation are a little odd. I did see a picture in the media of a person in a public place wearing a (presumably) transparent plastic box on their head to protect themselves from the dreaded virus. Some European football matches, if they are not cancelled, will take place this weekend behind locked doors with not a single spectator in the stadium. For the first time I saw in our always well-stocked supermarket empty shelves where nappies, paracetamol and toilet rolls (really?!) should have been. Stocking up in order to hunker down.


It seems to me that we are already pretty good at some forms of self-isolating. I was in a waiting room yesterday along with half-a-dozen others who were all looking at their mobiles during their wait. There was no attempt at any pleasantries let alone conversation. We have all probably been in restaurants while a family of fellow diners spend much of their meal consulting their devices. So much for table talk! With mobile communication devices and central heating available in every room in most homes it’s perfectly possible for families to live under the same roof but not on the same planet. The number of people living alone in the UK is rising.


We are also good at self-isolating in our own heads. We may remain aloof from obvious need. Or simply just aloof. We stow things away in the back of our minds and so avoid uncomfortable realities – at least until the boxes burst open somewhere down the line...

But if this outbreak worsens there will be nowhere to hide from a number of moral dilemmas.

The decision to self-isolate is a very personal one. People will often have to decide the right time for themselves or whether they should be cautious or take risks with their own health and that of others. They will need to think about whether they are using the outbreak as an alibi for time off work, for being lazy. Whether they think that colleagues’ absences are legitimate. Whether the risk of mingling is one worth taking. Whether in mingling they are being selfish. Whether the threat of contagion offers a way of evading some obligation they wish to avoid. And all this before we even mention the moral choices around ‘panic-buying’.


All these choices offer amazing illustrations of a well-worn dilemma in ethics. Are ‘personal matters’ necessarily ‘private’? The personal decisions which we all make in this situation will not be at all private. They will have consequences for other people – of possible contagion, of extra pressure on those who turn up for work, on availability of vital supplies. Personal decisions often have social implications. We, in the west, have been well-trained in the spirit of independence. Facing this crisis calls for a spirit of interdependence. This will test our mettle as communities.


In the UK, the last test of our spirit of community was Brexit. As a country, we failed! Maybe this is our second chance.

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