Within the past few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed my plans and expectations for my first year of medical school. It has canceled trips and internships. It has moved classes and social interactions online, dissolving my community as I knew it.
As a healthy, 20-something, I know that if I contract COVID-19, I am less likely to die than older adults like my parents or those with preexisting conditions.
So why should teens and 20-somethings give up hanging out with friends? Why should we let a virus dictate our lives?
That kind of cavalier attitude is present among young people. My newsfeed has been rife with reports of young people at California beaches before widespread beach closures, and at neighborhood brunches and even “coronavirus parties” held in defiance of the guidelines for social distancing.
On a personal level, I know that some of my acquaintances still travel, passing through multiple airports on a pleasure trip. Others host gatherings or attend wine parties in each other’s homes with an open invitation to all who can come.
Yet my social media is also filled with powerful calls to stay home and, if you must go out, to physically distance yourself from others.
Even young people with good intentions could be contributing to the spread of the virus. I know of people seeing different friends each day in small gatherings. They may figure there’s no harm in an intimate get-together, but this practice is risky. All it takes is one unsuspecting person who’s infected for spread to occur. From there, contagion is exponential.
I believe young people can change the course of the pandemic. We can try to forget about the pandemic and live as if we’re in the relatively carefree past.
Or we can act as role models, leading the charge in supporting public health measures and act as role models.
Assuredly, everyone has an obligation to physically distance. I think, however, young people have a unique obligation in minimizing the spread of coronavirus.
Some of us are understandably hesitant to accept the challenges of social distancing measures. As a friend suggested, we are trying to salvage our lives during a pandemic that has canceled everything. We’ve lost our semester of campus life and milestones like graduation. We’ve given up our spring breaks and have no idea about summer. So we may feel like victims of these unfortunate times.
I do not believe that it is a useful way to view this new reality. Unquestionably, we have all lost something. But we stand to lose something much greater if we do not do our part in mitigating the pandemic.
First of all, our own health is at risk. Even though the danger of COVID-19 may be greater for older generations, many of us are becoming infected. Whether we get sick or remain asymptomatic, we are spreading the virus and contributing to a possible collapse of health-care systems. And some young patients are dying.
We also risk our moral character in how we chose to respond to the pandemic.
In the months I have been in medical school, I have had the privilege of learning about a profession at the front lines of this pandemic — and the values and virtues embodied by health workers. Two fundamental virtues — benevolence and justice — can be embodied by us all.
How can our actions during this pandemic attest to our moral character? Social distancing is benevolent because it will benefit others and prevent avoidable harm. Fulfilling the needs of the elderly and those isolated — people who are immunocompromised, undocumented or underinsured — is just. And, what underlies these virtues is our shared responsibility in this public health emergency: to put the needs of others before our own.
I’d like to appeal to my peers: If there has ever been a time for altruism, for self-sacrifice, this is it. Our communities and countries need us in overcoming one of the biggest crises of our lives. This is an opportunity for us to rise to the occasion and lead the charge through small ways with a significant impact.
For the goal of flattening the curve — preventing deaths and a health-care system collapse from a crush of patients — we must physically distance ourselves. We need to limit our in-person contacts and instead log into quarantine apps to connect with friends or loved ones. We should follow public health guidelines because the data show it will reduce deaths and prevent us from getting sick.
If we expect health-care workers to help the sick and be at risk, then we should be prepared to do our part. Beyond just staying home, we can also join efforts to build solidarity from afar. Right now, some of our peers are calling those isolated, donating what they can or fundraising for non-profits that serve as social safety nets. What we do now is critical not only to our country and the lives of others but to our moral character as well.
Amal Cheema is an M.D. candidate at the Geisel School of Medicine, Dartmouth College, class of 2023.