Covid-19 Is a Proving Ground for American Empathy

Low-risk people are failing to take simple acts to help protect high-risk communities

Andy Slavitt
Medium Coronavirus Blog
4 min readJun 23, 2020


Photo by John Tlumacki via Getty Images

In a lot of ways, Covid-19 is forcing us to answer the question — what kind of society are we? Particularly as healthy, white, and well off people find ways to protect themselves, will we look out for each other?

The US, in all likelihood, will face a pattern of:

  • Covid cases going up
  • Death rates going down
  • Much more unequal outcomes

As time goes on and the virus spreads, two things happen, our own behavior adapts to what we know and scientists adapt to what we learn.

Let’s start with the scientists.

Science is attacking four major problems right now; the virus broadly and three main complications — clotting, oxygen deprivation, and immune system over-reaction. When the virus was in Wuhan, being on a ventilator was a death sentence. 80% of people on ventilators died. Today that number is lower and getting lower still. With new therapies, that 80% could decline to 20–40%.

In a society where we look out for one another, this scientific and social adaptation will be good. But societies where many people largely look out for themselves will have a different outcome.

Scientific progress was made possible by all of our actions in March and April. We stayed home, we distanced. To everyone who did, you saved lives. Now there is an important question about that behavior. Was it done to protect ourselves or also to protect the people around us?

Let’s say there was a highly infectious disease called DIVOC- 91. If all people had an equal 10% chance of catching DIVOC and a 20% chance of dying (or 2% overall) if they got it, everyone would be careful. It’s natural. We want to live.

But what DIVOC were different? What if young, white, healthy people had a 25% chance of catching DIVOC and a 1% chance of dying (.25% overall). And people of color, sicker and older people had a 40% chance of catching it and a 20% chance of dying (8% overall)?



Andy Slavitt
Medium Coronavirus Blog

Former Medicare, Medicaid & ACA head for Pres. Barack Obama.