Epidemics and Ethics: On Invisible Harm

I’m aware that it’s cheap to pounce on newsworthy issues to relate them to your topic of choice — like the acquaintance that habitually relates conversations back to himself in lieu of actually listening to anything anyone says. But I’m going to do just that — for good reason, I promise.

Unless you’ve managed to avoid all human contact, electronics, and news for the past couple of weeks, you are currently swept up, like everyone else, in the coronavirus epidemic chaos.

If you think it’s overblown, that it’s all hysteria, or that there’s some pernicious conspiracy at work, you are dead wrong. As others have pointed out, if at the end of the day our response looks like an over-reaction, we have done the right thing. By the time everyone recognizes that this is serious, it will be too late to do anything about it. So if you insist on being one of those contrarian edgelords, talking about how this is no worse than the flu, you need to stop.

The damage that is inflicted here is largely invisible. Let’s say we decide to keep going out to restaurants, bars, friends’ apartments, and other gatherings, like far too many are still doing. You are not going to get some notification in a month that you killed someone because you shook hands with some asymptomatic individual, thereby becoming infected, and then hugged an acquaintance, who hugged their mother a week later, who hugged her father a week after that, whose congestive heart failure worsened when they contracted the virus, leading to their death. In no practical sense can we track things like that. If we kill someone from being reckless, we will never know.

And think about what it means to be reckless in the age of coronavirus: leaving your apartment, seeing friends, going to concerts. These are things people do every weekend for fun. The ask is for people to forgo these activities.

Does this sound familiar? It should. Invisible consequences, curbing fun, a lifestyle change. This is, in a lot of ways, what we ask people to do when we advocate veganism.

It takes a lot to connect what’s on your plate to the farm animal. A steak looks nothing like a cow, though the blood and veins might remind us of its origin. Eating meat inflicts harm that is invisible to the eater — our job is to make it visible, to make them make the connection. In the same way, people need to connect their decision to go out to a bar with the potential death of a loved one.

And no one wants to stop having fun with their friends (though there are ways to hang out remotely!), so they keep going out. Many of these people are probably aware of how seriously wrong their decision is, but they do it anyway because they don’t see the consequences. You can have as much fun — and eat as much meat — as the cognitive dissonance allows.

Yes, vegan food is just as delicious. But the perception that veganism is ascetic is there. For people listening to us extol the values of a vegan lifestyle, they hear us telling them they need to stop enjoying something they enjoy very much.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for now. We all need to recognize our responsibility to keep each other healthy. There really is a long-unacknowledged social contract here, one that I hope we continue talking about even when this passes. But for now, stay inside (unless you have to work), find ways to socialize with your friends, and take care of each other.

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