This week’s article deals with the ethics and efficacy of Covid-19 “public-shaming” through social media. The article presents two types of activity that might fall into this category. At one end of the spectrum is a tweet from New York mayor Bill DeBlasio, which provided the name of one of the first attested Covid cases in New York City, Lawrence Garbuz. The mayor’s stated purpose in the tweet was to inform the public of the case and facilitate contact tracing. Nonetheless, he was criticized for violating Garbuz’ privacy.
At the other end of the spectrum are the majority of the anecdotes presented in the article. These describe social media activity that is specifically intended to harm the reputation of or cause mental anguish to the individual with Covid. This activity includes online harassment of the supposed “patient zeros” in Vietnam and Poland and later harassment of Garbuz and his wife. Much of this second type of activity is clearly either malicious or an attempt to vent frustration. It can’t solve the immediate problem in question, though it might, as the author mentions, compel others to behave more cautiously in the future.
Though DeBlasio’s actions would seem to violate patient privacy, we might ask how any large scale contact tracing scheme could operate if it relied on voluntary disclosure alone. Tweeting the information clearly wasn’t the most effective or respectful way of communicating it, and a more tailored approach seems to be called for. Still, how much authority over disclosure should we give to individual patients? The second type of behavior seems inherently more objectionable, but can we really systematically restrain it or would we want to if we could? Posting social media critiques is not a violation of privacy rights as long as the person posting was not given that information in a privileged context. The danger of being subject to online attacks might prove to be a valuable deterrent especially to high profile individuals such as the social media influencers in the article or the former chief advisor to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson who was recently forced to resign in part because of his violation of Covid regulations [see: https://www.economist.com/britain/2020/11/13/dominic-cummings-boris-johnsons-chief-aide-stands-down].
It might be necessary to ask what privacy requirements we should insist upon in the publication of test results during a pandemic? Under the circumstances, allowing for someone to withhold information might pose a significant public health risk. Should we make an agreement to public disclosure a requirement given limited testing sources? Should we fully subsidize published tests but not tests whose results might be withheld? Finally, even though the anecdotes in the article demonstrate the serious damage that can result from public internet shaming, how much weight should we give to this in view of the opposite tendency of many, especially in this country, to deny the reality of Covid? Is forceful criticism of potentially dangerous behavior justified in an environment when people might otherwise be inclined to dismiss the problem altogether?