A Coronavirus Thought Experiment

There has been a baffling pushback to the measures that we have taken to combat the Coronavirus. The U.S. has a long track record of extreme individualism which in this case equates to “you can’t tell me what to do”. A mistrust of the government is one of the founding tenets of our constitution, so it comes as no surprise that the populace is wary of government mandates. This flavor of obstinacy toward coordinated government effort confounds our international partners, perhaps most of all because our government is comprised of elected officials.

The average U.S. citizen may be right to oppose government intervention in myriad circumstances, the pandemic just happens to not be one of those times. Without a fundamental, holistic approach, we are playing whack-a-mole with our virus response. Dr. Mike Ryan from the World Health Organization gave a response as to whether schools should open in the near future. I’ve heard few remarks as eloquent as his, which addresses the coordinated approach which the virus response requires.

Given the wary nature of U.S. citizens toward their government, it is instructive to use a thought experiment to give people something to react to. The purpose of this thought experiment is to challenge those people who outright reject any coordinated intervention to come up with something better. Let’s begin.

You are in a large warehouse; think a Target store but everything has been removed. There are 100 people living within this space. Here are the current conditions:

  • Between 4 and 10 of you are infected with Coronavirus; the exact number is unknown.
  • Testing is available, but it takes two days to get the results.
  • 90% of those infected are asymptomatic.
  • In the center of this warehouse are food and beverages which everyone has free access to; people generally like to eat 3 times a day
  • One person will die each week regardless of what measures you take
  • The warehouse has a dozen machines along its walls which employ people. Some machines employ 10 people, some machines employ only one or two. In order to get access to the food and beverages of the warehouse, people are expected to work 40 hours a week at these machines.
  • You have a supply of free masks for everyone.

Now, there are a lot of variables to consider here. You have a closed environment, where people can’t leave and must continue working, eating, and spending time with their family.

The thought experiment boils down to this: if you were responsible for the safety of these 100 people, what would you do? The traffic from the machines to the food hub is naturally going to be chaotic. Not everyone eats at the same time. There will also be children who don’t abide by the rules that you set down despite what their parents say. People will need to keep working at the machines in order to get food, but don’t the machines which employ greater numbers of people provide greater risk? Do you mandate masks for those at the larger machines but not those at the smaller machines? What if someone becomes sick? Should they continue working?

To be clear, there are no easy answers in this thought experiment. You are in charge of 100 people; their lives, their safety, and their livelyhood. That is a heavy responsibility. The purpose of this is to transport you into the shoes of the health officials which have an impossible task ahead of them. Notice I didn’t stipulate that a certain sub-group of the warehouse would refuse any direction from the leader? That is what we have to contend with. A certain amount of people will die, regardless of the actions you take, and, as the leader, this will be something you have to live with. You will have to convince those you are responsible for that your actions are justified, despite the fact that they are not themselves responsible. I am not a public health expert. I can only say that they have an enormously difficult set of problems and I think we owe our best effort in supporting them.

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