Ethics and the Coronavirus
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow and the death toll mounts, it’s useful, from an ethics perspective, to use our experiences to date to evaluate our personal responsibilities to each other in this crisis. Why does this matter? Our society depends on communal efforts to improve the lives of everyone and this can’t be done unless we act responsibly, not take advantage of others, and look out for each other.
There is no doubt the U.S. government was not prepared for the virus outbreak. Even though China knew about it as far back as December 2019, the government acted as if it knew nothing about the potential risk to citizens of this quick-moving virus. The result has been a severe lack of testing kits, insufficient number of ventilators, and concern about the number of hospital beds in intensive care units. Moreover, the rationing of medical care may eventually occur.
The slow response contributed to the need for states and local governments across the country to declare a state of emergency. Citizens were told to self-isolate, not go out except when absolutely necessary, practice social distancing, wash hands with soap and water, not touch their faces and avoid groups of more than 10 people. Many cities totally shut down for all intents and purposes.
The early failings on the government side raise questions about the competency and believability of federal officials. It seems that President Trump had a different take on the severity of the crisis and how quickly it could be resolved than the scientists prompting some Americans to wonder: Who Should We Trust?
Perhaps the most troubling occurrence is that at the outset federal health employees interacted with Americans quarantined for possible exposure to the coronavirus without proper medical training or protective gear, then scattered into the general population, according to a government whistle-blower who lawmakers say faced retaliation for reporting concerns.
Generally speaking, most Americans have acted responsibly to the crisis by practicing social distancing and staying home. Others seem to be hoarding supplies and have bought enough toilet paper to last through 2020.
A Tennessee man bought 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and was being investigated for price-gouging. He was selling them on Amazon at a steep markup. He decided to donate the remaining stock after being caught illustrating that some people do the right thing only after they are caught doing the wrong thing.
There are some horror stories of fights breaking out among customers in stores like Costco, Target, Walmart and others over paper goods and hand sanitizers. In a You Tube video, shoppers in an Australian market are caught physically attacking each other (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVHYTdGUAZM).
Not everyone is sitting out the crisis. Pictures of college students enjoying spring break at Florida beaches and South Padre Island in Texas were shown all over social media. It became so bad that some Florida beaches closed down or severely limited access to beaches.
The Declaration of Independence grants citizens “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” How should we feel about the restrictions on our liberties? Telling some citizens to shelter in place and shutting down virtually all restaurants, pubs and bars may seem like an extreme measure.
Although not completely on point, the U.S. Supreme Court in Crandall v. Nevada, 73 U.S. 35 (1868) declared that freedom of movement is a fundamental right. Moreover, the freedom of peaceful assembly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution is the individual right or ability of people to come together and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend their collective or shared ideas. Perhaps the partiers on South Padre Island beaches are talking politics — probably not.
There is an expression “Just because you have a right to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do.” This is an apt description of the beachgoers on spring break. It also characterizes the behavior of an irresponsible passenger who got on a Jet Blue plane while awaiting the results of a coronavirus test thereby putting all 114 people on board at risk. He learned during the flight that he had tested positive. Jet Blue banned him from all future flights.
In many respects the way individuals have handled the crisis depends on whether they follow the ethical principle of egoism — allow individuals to pursue their self-interest — or adhere to a more communal ethic. This could be enlightened egoism where self-interest is pursued but only after the impact of one’s actions on others is considered. In other words, if I decide to fly to another city to meet up with a loved one, the possibility exists that I might contract the coronavirus. Should I take that chance knowing I may place others at risk?
Many businesses have been devastated by the spread of the virus. The airline industry, hotels, places of entertainment and cruise ships will lose billions of dollars. The government is working on bailout legislation to help the affected industries and their workers, who may be furloughed or fired.
The problems encountered in business due to the spread of the coronavirus creates risks and uncertainties from an accounting and auditing perspective. The overriding issues are whether to record or disclose amounts related to the loss in value of assets, possible future losses given the likely duration of the virus, and disruptions in revenue streams. In this regard, making accurate estimates is important as is having the internal controls over financial reporting to make reliable risk assessments. The underlying issue of whether a business is a going concern will be a challenge for auditors.
We are living in a time of a “new normal.” The restrictions on our activities and physical movement should be a warning that we need to look out for each other and treat each other the way we wish to be treated, the essence of The Golden Rule. If we learn that lesson, then perhaps the coronavirus will help focus our attention on personal responsibility to ourselves and communities. We will be better off on the other side of the crisis.
Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 23, 2020. Dr. Mintz recently published a book Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior that is available on Amazon. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics.