My last posting was about the ethics of writing about pandemics ad seriatim (one after the other). This is Altera (the other): the ethics of writing about COVID-19.

In February 2020, America acquired the latest in respiratory illnesses: a new type of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), now officially named COVID-19. At first hearing, it sounds like a Russian submarine. We also learned about a new phenom called “community spread,” which at first was thought to be a social media app. The CDC suddenly became as important as the CIA, far surpassing the least desirable federal agency—the IRS.

I’m making light of the situation only because it is the most frightening new disease to arrive from across the oceans since the so-called Spanish flu in 1918. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. They cause respiratory illness at scale and with little advance notice. In this heady time, we should be reading utopian promises in a presidential election year. Instead, we are force-fed dystopian predictions of death by plague and poverty by community spread.

So, what are the ethics of writing about COVID-19? Where might these writings be ethically shelved? Is it ethical to treat the subject as historical fiction, since the outcomes are far-fetched guesses at best and doomsday predictions at worst? Or should writings in the new genre—Coronavirus Literature—be written like Germ Memoirs, Bug Infestations, and Breathless Agonies?

Much of my work as a writer and an ethicist centers on conflating ethical norms from other, less threatening environments. These new, untested, fatalistic projections call for a different approach—one that is illness-centric and outcome-debatable. The closest analogies might be medical ethics. The best metaphors might be astrophysics.

Physicians treat patients under a basic ethical premise—do no harm. Writing about COVID-19 should do likewise. When writers write or prognosticate about the uncertainty inherent in this public health emergency, we should be intensely cautious about how our readers react to what we say—do them no harm. We should not offer rosy predictions about recovery and the return of a strong economy in the near term.  Two months after the pandemic roared in Asia, our president seemed sure about its outcome. On March 24, 2020 he wanted the U.S. ‘Opened Up’ by Easter. This was despite all health officials warnings. “‘You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America,’ the president said, insisting again that he did not view the coronavirus as any more dangerous than the flu.”[1]

As some American politicians focused on the financial consequences of the pandemic, India announced a complete lockdown of the country’s 1.3 billion people. The Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed for a year. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lockdown in Britain. And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said cases of COVID-19 were doubling every three days, with a peak expected in the third week of April, when an expected 140,000 New Yorkers would need to be hospitalized.”[2] The trigger words italicized above are not harmful; they are informative if they come from reliable sources. That’s ethical norm number two for writing about pandemics—do your research.

Governmental agencies charged with the duty of leading the medical and scientific fight against the COVID-19 pandemic released thousands of data points, advice, understandings, and warnings about specific outbreaks. For example, Enoki Mushrooms – Listeria Infections; Sprouts – E. coli Infections; Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19); Pet Store Puppies – Multidrug-resistant Campylobacter Infections; Lung Injury Associated with E-cigarette Use or Vaping; Raw Milk – Drug-resistant Brucella (RB51); Measles Outbreaks; Outbreaks of hepatitis A in multiple states among people who are homeless and people who use drugs.[3] This is ethical norm number three—be specific. And don’t forget to give your readers the dog’s name—a timeless reminder in both ethics and writing.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[2] Ibid.