When I deliver lectures on pandemic ethics over Zoom — part of my job as a bioethicist — one of the questions I am asked with increasing frequency is whether I believe there will be any silver linings to COVID-19. I usually respond with dark humor, a quip that I am grateful my barber now wears an N95 mask, so I can avoid small talk while he cuts my hair. Answering this question more seriously, in a manner that respects the deaths of nearly half a million Americans, proves challenging: I do not wish to sound like a benighted Pollyanna who praises World War II for giving us the Slinky.
One does not need to be clairvoyant to recognize that the current pandemic may lead to significant changes — some for the better — in the way that we live and work. For example, the mRNA technology ramped up for COVID-19 vaccines may also prove beneficial in treating autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis. The era of the transcontinental business trip is probably over, which may not please airlines, but is a relief for anyone who has ever spent 10 hours in transit to deliver a 30-minute presentation on the opposite coast. In the loss column, chalk up “snow days” and self-service buffet tables.
But what if we are asking the wrong question? Rather than reflecting on how the COVID-19 pandemic will change society, we might want to reflect on how it might change us. Will a year of social isolation and economic distress make us better or worse human beings? When we return to the proverbial “new normal,” will we enter the world with appreciation for the fragility of life and the welfare of our neighbors? Will we donate more blood? Increase our charitable donations? Look in on our elderly neighbors with greater frequency? Or will our tribal instincts have rendered us more selfish and suspicious — a nation of xenophobic hermits who emerge periodically to brawl over toilet paper?
According to social scientists, minor changes in surroundings or experience can have significant impacts on human judgment and behavior. Locating polling places inside schools, for instance, makes voters more likely to support education funding. People opt for worse financial decisions when they are hungry. Even the time of day and the weather matters. Studies have shown that people are more likely to behave ethically in the morning than in the afternoon and that medical school interviewers rank applicants lower on rainy days. Needless to say, the scope of the current crisis is bound to have an impact many magnitudes greater.
One does not need to be an expert, of course, to recognize the impact of significant historical events of the behavior of those who live through them. Generational cohorts give birth to generational stereotypes, some true. My own grandfather, an adolescent of the Great Depression, tore napkins in half into his 80s to save pennies. Increasingly, data show that historic calamities shape not only the behavior of survivors — but also their offspring. Researchers at Milan’s Bocconi University have analyzed survey data to show that the 1918 flu pandemic increased distrust among the children of survivors. Evidence from major earthquakes suggests that a poor government response to disaster exacerbates a decline in interpersonal trust.
Social science, of course, is not destiny. Our civil institutions and political leaders can still unite us — but history suggests their challenge will be harder going forward. The first step is asking the right question. To paraphrase President Kennedy: Rather than wonder how the pandemic will generate technological and lifestyle windfalls for ourselves, we must ask what lessons from the pandemic we can harness to help others. Whether we are better or worse for COVID-19 is, at least in part, a verdict within our control.
Jacob M. Appel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of Ethics Education in Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He is the author of “Who Says You’re Dead?” a collection of ethical conundrums.