Should we still be afraid of COVID?
Feeling morally superior about our COVID-19 behaviors.
Is there any question right now that requires a more careful and nuanced answer? I also want to begin this review by saying that I’m not actually going to attempt to answer this question—at least not in a clear or straightforward way.
I’m fully vaccinated and boosted. I still wear a mask even when it’s not required because I don’t want to get sick or make others sick, but I also see it as a sign of respect for people who have to go out to work every day, while I work remotely from home. I feel protected from the virus but not invincible, and like everyone I hope that the vaccines continue to be effective. I’m also enraged by the people who still refuse to get a vaccine, putting their own lives and others’ at risk.
By now we’ve all heard of Omicron, which has quickly spread to become the dominant variant around the globe. In the U.S., cases are up in every state, including breakthrough cases among the vaccinated, which led to a lot of Christmas and New Year’s plans being altered on the fly. Hospitalizations are up, too, but mostly for the unvaccinated. Despite the fact that Omicron spreads rapidly, it’s less severe than other variants, and breakthrough cases in vaccinated people generally produce only mild, if any, symptoms.
This, we’re told, is a sign that the vaccines are working, that we’ve, as Monica Gandhi and Leslie Bienen wrote in an opinion piece for Time, begun “the gradual process of accepting that COVID-19 is going to be endemic.” Ghandhi and Bienen raise the question of whether case numbers should continue to be the metric by which we pause or resume normal life. Cases are high right now, but if we’re vaccinated and the people we’re associated with are vaccinated, is COVID really dangerous? One thing my friends and family—particularly the ones who have tested positive—kept asking over the holiday was: “what is the right thing to do?”
Since the start of the pandemic, those of us who cared have followed CDC guidelines and government mandates because they were the right things to do. But now that we have vaccines, I think we’re all looking for new guidance, for a new moral compass. It’s hard, though. We’re not all moving to this place of acceptance that COVID-19 is here to stay at the same pace. This means that we all have different opinions about how to live in a world with a virus that continues to scare us into our homes.
I know of a few friendships that have ended over the past few weeks due to what we might call “COVID-19 moral spats.” I’m not talking about vaxxed and un-vaxxed friends parting ways. I’m referring to relationships that have ended over a difference of opinion about how we should be behaving during this phase of the pandemic. My friend Chris told a friend to fuck off when she accused him of being irresponsible and going out too much after he called to tell her that he tested positive a few days after they hung out. I, myself, struggle to hang out with one friend who’s a bit self-righteous about all she does to protect herself from the virus. I can totally respect—especially as an introvert—wanting to stay at home more, but please don’t judge me for trying to safely find ways to get back to normal.
It’s one thing to fear getting sick and dying from COVID, but to feel morally superior about never having it at all—that feels like a misguided moral judgment. A recent study from the University of Cambridge has found that people who are more concerned about catching COVID-19 are “more disapproving of the wrong-doings of others, whatever they were doing.” Beyond the pandemic, these findings reveal what actually shapes our morality and whether our judgments of wrongdoing are always “rational.” The correlation between the concern of catching COVID and judging others’ wrong-doings would seem to suggest that our morality is shaped by emotions like fear. What we’re afraid of becomes something we have a “moral obligation” to avoid at all costs. “These influences on judgments happen outside of our conscious awareness,” says Professor Simone Schnall from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology and the senior author of this research paper. “If we feel that our well-being is threatened by the coronavirus, we are also likely to feel more threatened by other people’s wrong-doing—it’s an emotional link.”
One of the strongest emotions that a growing body of evidence suggests is linked to moral condemnation is physical disgust. From an evolutionary standpoint, disgust is “an emotion designed to keep us from harm.” If tied to morality, however, disgust is perhaps evidence that all our moral beliefs are bullshit. Or “gut feelings” as Jessica Tracy, Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, posits in her article about how what we define as “morally sickening” might actually stem from “our body’s tendency to become physically repulsed by certain human behaviors.”
Tracy and colleague Conor Steckler wanted to see whether limiting this physical reaction would alter people’s moral beliefs. So they came up with “morally questionable scenarios” (these ranged from the “moderately problematic” peeing in a swimming pool to “highly severe” scenarios like incest) and gave participants a ginger pill to reduce physical reactions like nausea that someone might have in response to these wrong behaviors. Turns out that highly severe moral dilemmas are highly severe moral dilemmas, but the ginger pill did change the moral beliefs people held about “maintaining the purity of one’s body,” the ones that have historically helped protect people from disease. I suppose the philosophical question to ask is whether morality even needs to be invoked here?
Or ever. Ronnie de Sousa’s view is that morality is too “totalizing” in how it seeks to “objectively” define what’s right and wrong. And since it’s impossible for anyone to completely adhere to these definitions, we arbitrarily limit their scope. But de Sousa is mainly concerned with how “morality distorts” our reasons to making different choices. He considers both the utilitarian and Aristotelian views:
(1) The Utilitarian says the moral reason is the one that’s against causing pain and increases pleasure
(2) Aristotle says that moral reason should follow what’s “essential” to us as human beings
(3) de Sousa questions whether there’s a universal human experience of pleasure and pain
Morality also isn’t synonymous with good—there are bad moralities that are rooted in bad emotions: emotions like disgust, resentment, and fear. These are all emotions that have been boiling at the surface throughout the pandemic. As de Sousa claims, morality “encourage(s) us to feel contemptuous of others who fail to share our principles, or superior to those who fail to live up to them.” Perhaps these are the people who roll their eyes at those who say they’re tired of wearing a mask, tired of COVID. Or maybe these are the people who scoff at those who continue to skip out on fun and stay home. It goes both ways. The point is that everyone has their reasons for how they’re responding to surging cases and a reopened world, but they’re neither moral nor “non-moral.”
COVID-19 isn’t done with us, and for that reason some fear is expected. But how afraid we should be depends on our reasons and our role in the pandemic. For those who have been working in a hospital emergency room this whole time, I’m sure there’s fear around going back to normal too quickly. And the big question that remains is whether we could meet a variant that escapes the protection of the vaccine. As this question lingers, we’ll continue to grapple with different opinions about the right way to live with COVID.
But, really, there’s nothing we can do about it, so we all might as well take a ginger pill and relax.