Infectious Disease Discrimination and the Coronavirus

Skyler Simpkins ’23

Opinion Editor

When all other options fail, acupuncture is often recommended for those suffering unbearable neuropathy. My father, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year, developed severe neuropathic symptoms as a side effect of chemotherapy. His doctors recommended that he receive acupuncture after a plethora of other treatments showed no improvement. The appointment was made and my father was optimistic. A short time before the appointment, the therapist called him and cancelled his appointment due to suspicion of coronavirus infection. The only basis the therapist had for cancelling treatment was that my dad had recently traveled to Florida, a coronavirus hotspot. My father was denied life-altering treatment due to mere suspicion. It was at this moment that I saw the effect of coronavirus anxiety on the health of a loved one, and I quickly realized an egregious problem in our modern, pandemic-defined society. 

In the age of coronavirus, we have seen the reemergence of infectious disease discrimination. While this discrimination has always existed, it is now more prevalent and apparent than ever. This can be experienced on a daily basis when we—for example—visit a store or take public transportation. I would believe that most of us would agree with this, as do I, because these are private businesses enforcing their own jurisdiction over their property. Also, many of us would agree that this discrimination is better for the world since it is helping prevent the spread of coronavirus. But what about healthcare institutions like the one mentioned in my example above? Should private healthcare institutions be allowed to discriminate based upon coronavirus suspicion? While legally these institutions have the right to discriminate upon the basis of infectious disease, healthcare professionals have a much higher ethical obligation to the patient that overrides any legal or constitutional argument applicable. 

There are two fields of thought to ponder in this argument over the right to discriminate over infectious disease. First, the legal and second, the ethical. 

Legally a privately owned American business has the right to discriminate on the basis of infectious disease precaution. As stated above, I wholeheartedly agree with this right as it protects the community (if they choose to disallow those potentially exposed to or with coronavirus) and protects the sanctity of privately-owned business. It’s when these private businesses are based around health care that I perceive a startling reality. 

The Hippocratic Oath calls upon physicians to swear to uphold ethical standards in regard to their medical practices. This oath holds physicians to do what is good for the patients—and one could assume that this promotes anti-discriminatory practices. While not all medical students and doctors explicitly swear upon the same oath, we could extrapolate the premises of this oath to the plethora of others sworn by medical professionals every year. 

When a doctor sees a patient in need, they should treat them as it is their ethical responsibility to do so. Today, many doctors—mostly in private practices—deny patients out of fear of a coronavirus outbreak. While some may say this is out of caution and for the greater good, the physician denigrates the patient in favor of their own personal safety. Some may argue that the physician is protecting the community as well as themselves; however, if we start to care only for the greater good, we put the most helpless and feeble in danger. 

When a healthcare worker enters into their field of work, they accept a formidable task—whether literally or theoretically. Healthcare workers devote themselves to their patients and those in need. They help without discrimination—especially when it’s the most helpless. Why, then, do healthcare workers in private institutions neglect these standards when infectious disease is introduced? While I understand physicians are not contractually bonded to these standards, these standards are bound to their work. When physicians deny individuals—like my father—they lose their perceived higher moral standing in society. These physicians that neglect the individual are no more of an upstanding citizen than the lay people as they care only for themselves when anxiety is high. 

If we allow healthcare workers in privatized businesses to neglect their ethical obligations, we permit the societal abandonment of the most needy. We must remind healthcare workers of their obligations and their predecessor Hippocrates who would look down with shame at how these physicians and specialists are conducting their work. We must protect those discriminated against and ensure the care of all—unhealthy or well—in these trying times of uncertainty and fear.

bclark

Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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