A Matter of Character

Sooner or later, there will be tests. Temperature checks at every school, store and workplace; nasal swabs; antibody tests; virus-detecting dogs; new tests we haven’t invented yet — and then one more test, the most pervasive and unsettling one of all.

We’re all going to take a character test.

Federal lockdown guidelines are being lifted, states are rushing to do the same, curves are flattening in many places, summer beckons. But all that means is that choices that were being made on high now devolve to each of us. What intrusions will we tolerate, what sacrifices will we make and how will we do the intimate math of personal risk when half the country says it is hard to know what is true about this wretched disease?

And how honest will we be with ourselves, and others, about our movements, contacts, habits and interactions?

Fighting mass infection will likely mean mass invasion, this time of our privacy. The whole premise of testing and tracing is that data can protect us: find who is infected, trace their contacts and isolate them so everyone else can go about their business. The promise of the approach, however, depends on being utterly honest — about your symptoms, vitals, movements and interactions. Even outsourcing your memory to your phone with a Bluetooth tracking app requires that at least half the people in your area have done the same in order for the tracking to be most effective.

This is where the character test happens. How many of us will set aside our privacy concerns, download the app and faithfully report test results? Surveys of public trust suggest that it is richer, whiter, more educated people who have the highest levels of interpersonal trust, but those are not the populations that have been most at risk of contracting this virus. Meanwhile some wealthier people have shown that they trust other people to behave responsibly so they don’t have to — like that private planeload of partiers from London who were turned back when they tried to escape their quarantine and head to Cannes.

And that’s just the first part of the test. If you feel fine, have no symptoms, but get a call from a contact tracer that you were exposed to an infected person and need to self-isolate for two weeks, what will you do then? Even having a choice counts as a luxury at a time when household incomes have been flattened. Will you tell your boss, and hope she will pay you to stay home for 14 days, not for being sick but for possibly becoming sick? Tell your spouse, if she thinks you haven’t left the house in a month? Will you share your condition with another parent, if your kids really want a play date? What if you know a co-worker has been contacted; will you turn them in if they keep coming to work?

All those stay-at-home orders protected us from having to make any choices — or think about our risk tolerance. But as those edicts lift, we will own our choices. Your best friend’s spouse has died. She is shattered. She wants to know if she should hold a funeral and if you would come. What do you tell her?

Meanwhile, your aging mom misses you. She wonders if she will ever see you again, and who knows how much time she has? When is it okay to go visit, and how will you know? As schools carefully reopen, do you send your nine-year-old daughter back, but not your 11-year-old diabetic son? You can’t go to work if they’re at home, so what amount of income is worth what amount of risk? How much do you have to reveal, and to whom, to explain your decisions?

The legal adage that hard cases make bad law applies to this moment in an unforgiving way. Our choices under pressure will set precedents we may not like about what we will accept from governments, our employers and one another in the future. We may not care much about freedom of assembly when assembling poses mortal risks. It’s not just free speech, but the freedom not to speak, that counts when intimate personal details become matters of public interest. How much extra leverage on workers will employers have as they start to rehire the 30 million people they’ve laid off? How will we protect desperate workers from being exploited on the long road back to normal? How many friendships will be tested as we each reach our own conclusions about what is essential and what is indulgent?

So, a character test, with no right answers because all the questions are hard, much of the evidence is inconclusive and much of the data is conflicting. The onus is on the all of us to think about self-interest and public interest at the same time, to model behaviors we hope others follow and to take the responsibilities of liberty more seriously than ever.

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