March 15, 2020

A CAUTIONARY TALE FROM ITALY: DON’T DO WHAT WE DID. Many of us were too selfish to follow suggestions to change our behavior. Now we’re in lockdown and people are needlessly dying.

Before the outbreak hit my country, I thought I was acting rationally because I screened and processed a lot of information about the epidemic. But my being well-informed didn’t make me any more rational. I lacked what you might call “moral knowledge” of the problem. I knew about the virus, but the issue was not affecting me in a significant, personal way. It took the terrible ethical dilemma that doctors face in Lombardy to wake me up.

I put myself in their shoes, and realized that everything should be done in order to avoid those ethically devastating choices: How do we decide who gets an ICU bed and who doesn’t? Age? Life expectancy? How many kids they have? Their special abilities? Is the patient’s profession a relevant factor? Is it right to save a middle-aged doctor who will save more lives if he survives as opposed to a younger person who’s been unemployed for the last 12 months? These are the kind of theoretical questions you are asked to weigh in leadership classes at business school. But this is not a personality test. It’s real lives.

The way to avoid or mitigate all this in the United States and elsewhere is to do something similar to what Italy, Denmark, and Finland are doing now, but without wasting the few, messy weeks in which we thought a few local lockdowns, canceling public gatherings, and warmly encouraging working from home would be enough stop the spread of the virus. We now know that wasn’t nearly enough.

Do tell.

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