Johns Hopkins has released an online training course for people who wish to become contact tracers in the government’s efforts to fight the coronavirus. Passing the six-hour course is mandatory for those who want to work as tracers in New York state, which is planning to hire thousands. Toward the end of the course is a section on ethics. Its language about the fundamental rights of American citizens is troubling.
In regard to people having the autonomy to make their own decisions, such as leaving their houses or seeing others, the course says this:
Next, let’s talk about autonomy. Autonomy legally means the right of a person to make their own decisions. It’s also known as the right to self or an agency. And what this really means, is that each person can make their own decisions. This is true unless the decisions they make or the things they do can harm someone else. And we all know that this is true. And in the case of contact tracing, it means that people can make their own decisions. But if they’re not isolating themselves or not quarantining themselves, that could harm someone else. It does put other people at risk so they do have some limits on their autonomy, or their ability to make their own decisions within the context of contact tracing.
This tortured and Orwellian language is bizarre. It says we can make our own decisions as long as they don’t harm others, and then just pronounces, “We all know that is true.” We do? People make perfectly legal choices all the time that have the possibility of hurting others. The “heightened circumstance” of making a choice that may harm others authorizes the government to send someone to my house and make me comply?
Is there any limiting principle here? Owning a gun could harm others, heating your home could cause climate change, having a lot of children can put a burden on those who do not. Are these situations where if we call it an emergency the state can compel our choices even to engage in activities specifically protected by the Constitution, like, I don’t know, leaving the house or going to church?
Public health officials will inform us this is a temporary and much-needed set of measures specific to the Chinese virus situation. But is it? New York City is hiring full-time tracers at $57,000 with full benefits. This looks a lot more like a career track than a part-time summer job. What are all these people going to do when the coronavirus case numbers come to a trickle? Will they be fired? Or will their new surveillance skills be put to use to protect the public in other ways?
Frankly, this text from the course looks like something a medical expert would have written and maybe had a medical ethicist take a glance at. It presumes, as public health officials tend to, that avoiding sickness and death is the only and overriding legitimate interest when it comes into conflict with individual liberty. That simply runs counter to the entire concept of a free society. Lip service is paid to respecting individual liberty, but ultimately tracers are sent a crystal-clear message that it is a secondary priority.
What’s even more troubling in the context of New York is that Michael Bloomberg, whose philanthropy in large part funds the Johns Hopkins effort, has been put in charge of implementing the tracing plan in the state. If he agrees with what’s in the training, this means forced quarantines. Who will enforce that? Tracers? The police? Some other agency? What will the penalty be for disobeying?
We are preparing to create a new and very large group of civil servants with enormous power over our personal lives. Nobody seems to know exactly how this is all supposed to work, but judging from the language in the six-hour course that qualifies one for this powerful job, we have a lot to be worried about.