Canadians are waiting for a major coronavirus outbreak that seems all but certain. Exactly how it will unfold, which regions will be most affected, and the potential human toll remain subjects of speculation, but no one seems to doubt that a difficult time is at hand.

Much of the discussion about the virus centres on numbers and data, such as how many get sick, what age groups are most affected, mortality rates, economic impacts, and so on. There are a range of numbers and data for all this, even as much is uncertain.

My intent in writing this series is to discuss the COVID-19 crisis from the point of view of ethics. It is not to say the numbers do not matter, as of course the numbers will inform this ethical discussion in many ways.

Collectivism vs. individualism

The most obvious ethical dimension of this virus outbreak is the way it calls on us, as communities and as residents of this country, to enact altruism for the collective good.

For example, individuals are enacting a range of health strategies such as increased hand washing, not touching their face, staying at home if they are sick, avoiding large gatherings, and so on. Other strategies include social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantining.

In the first instance, these are things that individuals do to avoid personally getting infected. In a general sense, the thinking that motivates these behaviours is often focused on the self — “others may get infected but I will not.” A related type of self-centred thinking is what motivates hoarding and panic — “I must stockpile resources to keep myself safe.”

To be clear, by “hoarding” I do not mean putting away extra non-perishable food items or preparing to be isolated at home for a couple of weeks. Stocking up on necessary and essential items is part of being responsible and part of moral action at this time. By “hoarding” I mean the types of behaviour that clearly go beyond the pale, such as buying thousands of dollars worth of disinfectants or toilet paper or surgical masks.

We are called to behave in ways that take into account the well-being of others, called to participate in a worthy effort that is larger than ourselves.

The self-centred perspective of the world as a battle of all against all obviously predates this coronavirus outbreak. Individuals are pitted against one another in competition over apparently limited economic and material resources, and hoarding behaviour and panic are the day-to-day business of banks and markets and speculation.

But the main reason that health authorities are encouraging people to practise good hygiene and to prepare for quarantines is not simply so individuals can protect themselves.

Yes, individuals should try their best to avoid becoming infected, and individuals should certainly enact these recommended health and preparation strategies. However, the reason for doing so is not really about keeping isolated individuals safe. It is to give the health care system a chance to deal with the outbreak in a manageable way rather than in an overwhelming flood of cases.

Flattening the curve

In short, the reason it is important for everyone to do their best to avoid becoming infected is not just about their own self-preservation. It is, in a much more significant sense, about preserving the well-being of the collective and those most vulnerable to the worst effects of the virus.

So, for example, if a significant proportion of the population is likely going to become infected over the lifespan of this virus no matter what, it is important that this does not happen all at once, since the health care system does not have the capacity to deal with all the serious cases at the same time.

If only one person washes their hands, it makes no difference whatsoever to anyone except that one person.

As communities and as residents of this country, we need to work together to slow the spread of the virus such that the health care system can cope. The same number of people may become infected but over a longer time frame, so the outcomes for the most vulnerable people are better.

The shift in thinking here is from a self-centred to a collective perspective. It is a call to act in a way that takes into account people we have never met. It is a call for a kind of altruism and collective ethics that are in many ways the opposite of the typical “me against the world” mentality.

If only one person washes their hands, it makes no difference whatsoever to anyone except that one person. Millions of people enacting good health practices can make an enormous difference for millions of people. This is the idea of collective care.

Motivation matters

The move to a collectivist ethics to understand the coronavirus outbreak impacts individual motives for action.

It gives us a different reason to do many of the same things we may already be doing to keep ourselves from getting infected. But in this perspective the motivation is a collective-oriented altruism rather than self-centredness. It is a call for all of us to care for one another.

Perhaps this is a way to avoid some of the panic and hoarding that may grip an affected population, because from this view the reason for action is not just basic self-preservation. We are called to behave in ways that take into account the well-being of others, called to participate in a worthy effort that is larger than ourselves.

Is it justifiable to go on holiday at this time?

And so hoarding, for example, is highly unethical. Likewise, altruism and acting toward common or collective goals seems to me a better motivation for action, and one that will lead to better outcomes, than purely self-centred or individual motivation.

There are a number of significant ethical issues raised by the coronavirus outbreak. I intend to discuss a few more of these in subsequent writings, but in closing I leave just a couple questions as signposts for where this thinking leads.

Is it justifiable to go on holiday at this time? Is it justifiable to hold a large public gathering? Is it justifiable for restaurants and bars to be open? Is it justifiable, right now at the outset of this coronavirus outbreak, to begin restricting movement of people to slow the virus down as much as possible?