Beyond the White Coat

Solutions to the pandemic must include public behavior


Many scientific problems are complex. Finding the solution can require the concerted efforts of a team. Producing a vaccine for COVID-19 involved a multidisciplinary team with a variety of highly specialized expertises, extensive technological resources, and a history of previous scientific discoveries upon whose shoulders today’s scientists can stand.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

Many ethical problems are also complex. Finding the ideal, multifaceted answer that addresses all the nuances of a social problem requires brilliant minds, a refined ability for logical analysis and rhetoric, the empowerment of the voices of all stakeholders, and attention to social values such as diversity and justice.

In both endeavors, the typical scientists and ethicists involved tend to presume that if they can determine an ideal solution, it will be rapidly and enthusiastically adopted and implemented for the betterment of society. That is, after all, exactly how those researchers would choose to act. Scientists see moral actions as having two steps. The hard part is deciding what is right. Doing the right thing is the easier task. This delusion is ubiquitous. Many scientists and ethicists recognize the delusion of the existence of a rational society, but proceed anyhow as if one exists.

There is a chorus of voices capable of debunking this delusion. Any priest who hears confessions will testify that the vast majority of harm comes from the failure to do what people already know is right, not from uncertainty, confusion, or ignorance. Psychologists and substance abuse counselors are inundated with people who are stuck doing harmful and self-destructive acts. Internists discuss diet and exercise with their patients, but find the advice is infrequently adopted. Master in business administration programs are devoted to training graduates in methods of motivating people to do what is right.

The response of the scientific establishment to the COVID-19 pandemic was imperfect. There were gaps in knowledge and some early information from China was misleading. The initial CDC test kit production was flawed. The early appeal for the public not to buy masks was strongly driven by a desire to preserve supplies for health care workers. Despite these missteps, the overall advice of scientists was wildly successful and beneficial. The goal was to flatten the curve, and a comparison of the April-June time frame with the November-January period shows markedly fewer COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Confronted with the pandemic of the century, my assessment is that scientific establishment has performed well.

I am far more negative in my assessment of the institutions that support morality, form the social order, establish justice, and promote the general welfare. For instance, misinformation on social media is rampant, including conspiracy theories and outright denials of the pandemic. Scientific advice has been undercut and impugned. Policy recommendations of esteemed scientific institutions have been ignored. The public’s cooperation has fatigued. Laws on public gatherings, quarantines, and social distancing have been broken. Communitarian ethics and devotion to the common good have been left in a trash heap. The consequences have been hundreds of thousands of lives lost in 2020 and some states are on the brink of much worse.

Medical ethicists have debated in fine detail how to triage ventilators, ration antibody treatments, and prioritize vaccinations. Those policy recommendations have had limited influence. Medical ethics has inadequately addressed the age old problem of morality, which is getting people to behave as they know they ought. Modern medical ethics may have exacerbated the deviancy. Medical ethics for 50 years has emphasized replacing paternalism with autonomy, but it has not adequately promoted communitarian virtues, self-regulation, and personal integrity.

There were many accomplishments and many people to admire in 2020 when compared to historical actions by the health care professionals during crises. Doctors, confronted with the COVID-19 plague, have not abandoned the cities as happened in prior centuries. Patients have not been shunned like lepers, though the total-body protective equipment and the no-visitor policies come very close. Nurses have heroically provided bedside care, though I am haunted by one dissident nurse during a protest carrying a sign saying “Don’t call me a hero. I am being martyred against my will.”

As a scientist, I am prone to the delusion that, if I can build a better mouse trap, people will use it. I’ve lived with that delusion for decades. It carries over into my medical ethics work. Yet I see hospitals in California being overwhelmed by the surge on top of a surge due to unwise and unsafe holiday travel. I can see that optimized solutions aren’t the answer – it is better behavior by the public. I recall when I was a child, my mother would simply command, “Behave yourself.” And never, in any of those recollections, was I in doubt about which correct behavior she meant.

Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at

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