Should I visit Philippe?

It’s time that I paid more attention to how my governments are responding to COVID-19.

I’ve supported the status-quo for the last few months: masks should be mandatory indoors, nobody should attend gatherings, and if you must meet with other people, it needs to be an exclusive group of people (a “personal bubble”).

I had three reasons for this. One, I don’t want to get COVID-19 because it’ll shorten my lifespan. Thanks to Bret and Heather from the Darkhorse podcast for making this case.

Two, we need to flatten the curve to prevent our hospitals from breaking down. This was seared into my mind by videos and tweets from Italy and New York, where hospitals there were overflowing. Italian hospitals were turning away old people at the doors to take care of more viable patients.

Three, cities which had more stringent measures against the Spanish Flu (or some other historical flu, I can’t remember exactly) had economies which bounced back more quickly than those which did not.

For these three reasons, we should all wear masks, steer clear of large gatherings, and have an exclusive friend bubble.

But now I need to reconsider these reasons and have better thoughts about our government’s actions against COVID-19. Why For one, I’m really freakin anxious. Like seriously anxious. All the time. And while the primary cause may be a conspiracy among my roommates against me, it is certainly exacerbated by an absence of local friends. In other words, if I actually had friends here in Montreal, I’d be better. And because I just moved here, I don’t know anyone here other than my conspiratorial roommates.

While I was looking for a new apartment, I met Philippe. He’s a gregarious, big, funny, and well spoken guy. He goes to Concordia (or McGill?), and invited me to chill later, because I seemed like a chill guy. I gratefully accepted his offer, and was hoping to go play Mario Kart with him this week. But unfortunately, this is illegal.

This is what Quebec’s website says regarding visitors from other addresses, as of Dec. 15, 2020. It’s prohibited.

As you can see in the photo above, visitors from another address are prohibited! And I assume that prohibited visits are punished (fined). According to this article, police can now fine “stores, companies, and homes” $1,500 to $6,000 if they violate COVID restrictions. These places are also “targeted for spot checks.” Even if Philippe left his door unlocked and I walked in, a neighbour could call the cops over. The cops could then “spot check” his home. And then they could fine me and Philippe $1,500 (min) each. The cops would fine him for hosting an illegal gathering, and they’d fine me for visiting a residence that I don’t live in.

Is this reasonable? Is this moral? Is this acceptable? I think the ideas of “spot checks” and snitch neighbours belong squarely in totalitarian states like the Soviet Union and East Germany. It is thus inimical to a free and democratic society such as Canada. But the government must protect its health care system, and the population too. They’ve got to lower the spread of COVID, along with how quickly it spreads. And it seems like this is a good way to do it, right?

Let’s look at the tradeoffs. On the one hand, I need to go visit Philippe because I’m starving for friendship and social connection. Without this, I’m extremely anxious, I have heart palpitations (probably not good long term), and I feel like throwing up when I’m near my roommates. But what’s the cost?

As I mentioned above, there’s the fine. Even if I never meet Philippe in person, the police can fine me for being a visitor at his residence. But civil disobedience is justifiable, if not morally obligatory, when a government acts outside of its proper bounds, when parliament has abdicated its proper role of checking the executive, and when the judiciary tends to defer to the executive on administrative issues. One research question I have is this: is the government’s prohibition that I do not visit Philippe a legitimate one?

Next, let’s say I skirt the law, visit Philippe, and get away with it. No fines. My next worry is that either he will give me COVID-19, or, I will give him COVID-19. In either case, we’ll both have the virus. The best case scenario is that we have mild symptoms, and we must quarantine for 14 days. But what are the worst case scenarios? How likely am I to die? Even if I live, what are the long term consequences to my health?

You might have noticed that I haven’t at all mentioned the broader social implications of catching COVID.

In my last podcast with Matt Strauss, I actually defended the status quo, on the following basis.

There’s a special subset of risky actions. These actions have benefits which go only to the individual actor, but costs which are shared with the collective. For example: lighting a fireplace inside your 800 year old wooden row-house is different from lighting a fireplace inside a farmhouse. If your farmhouse burns down, you’re the only one who has to pay for it. But if your wooden row-house burns down, you’ve just made a whole bunch of families homeless, too. In both cases, the potential benefit is exactly the same: a warm hearth for one family. But the potential costs for the row-houses are a magnitude greater than the farm house.

When you have this subset of risky actions at hand, then collective control of what you’re even allowed to risk seems justifiable to me. And visiting friends which might spread COVID fits into this subset of risky actions.

I think it’s a really good argument. And when I think about a solution, the first one that comes up is Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game argument. In Ancient Babylon, if an architect built a house which then broke and killed the daughter of the new resident, the Architect’s own son had to be put to death. Skin in the game. If this rule were applied to COVID, the state would prosecute party-goers for manslaughter. Skin in the game.

But I’m not going to address this argument, or even consider the broader social implications – at least not immediately. I have to finish this essay. And to do this, I must focus on my two big questions from above.

  1. Is the government’s prohibition that I do not visit Philippe a legitimate prohibition?
  2. What are the worst case scenarios if I were to visit Philippe?

The broader social implications will inevitably pop up as I’m answering these questions. For now, let’s focus on these two questions. As for a schedule, let’s go with Dec. 16 to unravel the two big questions into its components, and then Dec. 30 (my birthday!) to have all of those component questions answered. THEN, and only then, will I broaden the essay and look at other broader social implications, etc etc.

Wish me luck!

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