viruses


The answer is no, it isn’t. Please stay home.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that getting sick is that big of a deal. I can handle the discomfort of a flu, and so can you. But if I had a choice between you punching me in the face and you giving me a flu, I would prefer the punch as long as you didn’t break anything.

Why is the relatively mild punch to the face clearly unethical and going to work sick is not? It’s because when it comes to getting sick, we suffer from magical thinking.  When it comes to mysterious misfortunes, we tend to rely on magic potions, magic words, magic thoughts, or magic feathers. If punches to the face were a mysterious misfortune that struck with no clear puncher or intended punchee, we would probably have a whole range of face-punch invulnerability talismans, herbs, and spells. And going to work when you might punch someone would not seem like an ethical question.

Remember how everyone in your office got the flu this winter and it was so bad that it was funny and you sat in a meeting and sympathized with a sick colleague as they described their distress, and then later joked about how you probably got it from them? That was possible only because neither of you could see the mechanism of infection or feel the viral load enter your bloodstream when you rubbed your eye. The vivid experience of a perpetration would limit the possibility of magical thinking, and going to work sick would become an obvious ethical question.

The story I’ve been told about the action of viruses is confusing me. They get into our bodies, take over the nucleus of a cell, and use our genetic apparatus to manufacture more viruses, which go out and do the same. What we feel during the course of a cold or flu is largely the result of our immune system, and that it’s possible that without an immune system, the first symptoms of a viral infection might be the faltering of some major body  system–heart failure or delirium, for example, if the heart or brain became compromised. Why do we have such a narrow range of symptoms? Fever, headache, congestion, sore throat, vomiting, tiredness, cough, maybe losing our voice–that’s about it, right? But why is there any variation, if what the virus does is the same? Why do we get a cough with one flu and not another?