Should people who didn’t follow the CDC guidelines to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 be given priority for treatment in overflowing and understaffed hospitals?

One of the most important pressing moral questions of our time, that few of us want to ask or answer, is should people who have disregarded or intentionally ignored CDC guidelines to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and end up in the emergency rooms and intensive care units of our hospitals with corona virus symptoms be treated as anyone else who has done their best to comply?

In many states, counties and cities in the United States hospitals are overflowing with people who have COVID-19 or corona virus like symptoms. Most of these people have unsuspectedly been exposed to the virus. Some of them are our essential workers, while others are people in nursing homes. The young and the old, the virus is an equal opportunity phenomenon. The deaths and destruction that the virus has caused is not just unfortunate it’s tragic.

Assuming we could determine with certainty who rejects the guidelines, and thus science, and who doesn’t, most Americans by now know the virus is spread by asymptomatic people and that they need to avoid large gatherings, wear masks, social distance, wash hands frequently, etc. Many (perhaps most of the 74 million who supported Trump’s second presidential bid) believe COVID-19 is a hoax or at least exaggerated, ignore these recommendations and attended crowded events without masks or social distancing.

Some of these individuals also express hostility towards those who wear masks, advocate the use of masks, and towards folks who try to enforce the guidelines. For example, flight attendants spent most of their time enforcing the mask mandates and getting verbally and sometimes physically abused by noncompliant passengers.

These science and expert-rejecting folks believe that in the United States they have freedom to do as they please. Of course, this is nonsense. We have restrictions on most of our behaviors – you don’t have the freedom to run a red light, you don’t have the freedom not to wear a seatbelt, etc. We even have restrictions on our first amendment right of freedom of speech. So at the very minimum, if our behaviors potentially endanger the lives of others and of ourselves, we really don’t have the freedom to engage in that behavior. It is now abundantly clear with reams of data to prove it that failing to follow COVID-19 guidelines puts others at risk, drains needed health care resources, and puts the lives of health care professionals and essential workers at higher and preventable risk.

Despite the recent slow and dysfunctional rolling out of a vaccine, in the United States alone, we are now up to 24,438,786 number of people who are infected with the virus and 406,159 deaths. Reports indicate that there are x number of people who die each day.

There are few historic parallels to what has occurred with COVID-19. For example, during the 1980s HIV/AIDs was ravaging through the gay community. The public was advised to take precautions to not have unprotected sex with strangers, minimize the number of partners, etc., and if they had contracted the virus they had the moral obligation to disclose this information to their partners. Predictably there were people who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, ignored the guidelines, had unprotected sex with partners, and their partners contracted HIV/AIDs. Some of these folks were even charged with attempted homicide.

So, in light of these tragic statistics and a dangerously at capacity and over capacity health care system in many states/cities, many hospitals are very close to rationing health care. The question is should people who rejected science and experts and willingly and knowingly, with complete disregard for human life, infected others have the same access to diminishing health care resources in the same way as the rest of us who have been doing everything right to minimize transmission?

Clearly the medical profession is governed by the Hippocratic oath, which despite its slight modifications over the years, basically affirms the notion that that health and medical care profession should engage in their duties to patients without fear or favor in a totally equal manner. So perhaps the moral question of our time is best targeted to hospital administrators and health care planners whose job is to allocate limited resources judiciously. What will they do?

Photo “Virus Outbreak Italy” by Ninian Reid