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


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)?

Here is the question — if the transmission rate was very high, do we live in a society where young, white healthy people would be just as cautious as Black and Brown people, or older people and sicker people?

To keep it simple, would lower risk people wear a $1 mask to dramatically cut down on transmission knowing they were going to come into contact with higher risk people or their family members even better even if they weren’t worried for themselves? Or would they say “let me live my mask free life to the fullest, the high risk people can take care of themselves and isolate.”

Can people working essential jobs perfectly isolate? Should they have to if a month with a mask for everyone is an alternative?

Let’s not pull punches here. In other countries they faced this question and their societies have rallied. All over Asia, Europe and Oceana, people have worn masks, locked down, sacrificed income and stayed away from bars.

It wasn’t easy and they might have to again but it worked. It is becoming clearer and clearer that we have a situation much more like the second scenario.

Young people feel immune and many are symptom free. White people have lower mortality. Well off people can isolate. But they can all easily spread Covid-19 to people at higher risk.

We all likely know by now that Black Americans are 2x likely to die of Covid-19 as white people. But if you’re between 35–44, Black Americans are 9x more likely to die of Covid-19 as white people.

If you have autism or a developmental disability, you are more likely to get Covid and if you get it, much more likely to die from it. Same with high blood pressure, obesity and other illnesses, and age — fatality climbs from 1–20% between ages 50-80.

The likelihood of catching and the severity of the virus goes up as prolonged exposure and the number of people you are exposed to goes up. Running into a grocery store without a mask is a different from working there.

But simple things like wearing a mask, not attending large events like casinos and churches, and not hanging out in bars protect everyone and cut down on transmission. The 9 of the 10 cities with the highest growth in transmission are in places with low reported mask use.

What is the matter with us? Why do we need to personally be at risk to care about risk to others? If I told you there was a force that preyed on the old, the sick, and people of color, you might refer to it as a Nazi disease.

Where did they teach in Sunday school we can be negligent of others when we feel safe? Where is pious Vice President Pence? Where are evangelical leaders? I don’t know Joe Rogan but do people in our country really care what he thinks about them? Local officials and scientists get death threats for wearing masks? And they get asked to falsify data and under test?

What is wrong with us?

As the death rate drops and people feel safer, lower risk people will be even more cavalier about getting back to their lives. Science is not our missing ingredient in beating this virus. Empathy is.