I work in an office with cubicles six feet apart, but we are all up and about throughout the day. We are supposed to wear a mask every time we step outside our cubicles, but for short interactions that often does not happen. The C.D.C. says the risk is higher if people are within six feet of one another for a total of 15 minutes in a day. That is probably the case for all of us. My closest cubicle mate is unvaccinated and came down with Covid. He did not tell anyone, but I found out, and I am furious that he exposed me and did not tell me. He is now out on quarantine, having told others it was a different illness.
Therapists are expected to break the confidentiality glass and tell a target if his or her life is in danger. Can I do the same? If he exposes us carelessly, our lives could be in danger. I could wear an N95 all day, I suppose, but what about the others? In any case, such measures are not foolproof. Given his carelessness and refusal to be vaccinated, and the real possibility that he could be reinfected, is it ethical to share the fact that he has Covid? Name Withheld
What you can do with what you know often depends on how you came to know it. You say you’ve discovered that this man has Covid. Now, it’s one thing if you did so through browsing his medical or insurance records, say, or through a clinical relationship that entails medical confidentiality. Obviously, you must not breach the conditions of access to privileged or otherwise protected information. Assuming that’s not the situation, however, there’s no “confidentiality glass” to break: You’re free to discuss what you’ve learned.
Should you? While it might be uncollegial to spread the word about a co-worker’s medical condition, collegiality is a two-way street. This employee, having lied about his condition, chose not to inform you and others around him in the workplace about a possible exposure to Covid. That’s something they’re entitled to know about.
And, as you note, his decision to remain unvaccinated means that he could face an elevated risk of re-infection compared with a person in his situation who was also vaccinated and boosted. Particularly at a time when the rate of infection remains high, it would probably make sense for workers to comply with office precautionary policies more rigorously. Letting people know that they have interacted, unmasked, with someone who could have infected them might encourage greater vigilance.
I work in a real-estate office and recently found out that one of our advisers isn’t vaccinated. My 90-year-old mother lives with me, and I was upset to find out that I have unknowingly been putting her at risk. She is triple vaccinated, but an infection can be dangerous for someone her age. Luckily, the rest of us were vaccinated. We have not been wearing masks at meetings in our office; I assumed that everyone was triple vaccinated. There are other advisers who have young children. No one has been informed about this situation. We have been told that we all must do what makes us comfortable. Do I tell other brokers in the office or just let them find out (or not) on their own? Name Withheld
Once again, assuming that you came by this knowledge without encumbrances, you’re free to disclose it. Omicron infections are hardly uncommon even among the vaccinated — and infected people, both vaccinated and not, can transmit infection — but, as a New York State Department of Health study confirms, the unvaccinated are still much more likely to become infected. So what you have is information people might reasonably wish to know.
I am the only child of a single mother who has been, my whole life, alcoholic and self-destructive. She is loving and well-intentioned, but she is highly anxious, inflexible and prone to alienate people. I learned long ago that I cannot stop her from acting against her best interests and that her choices, however awful they seem to me, are entirely hers to make.
My mother is now nearing 80, and her health and memory are failing, though her dementia is still fairly mild. She very much needs help (her personal hygiene could be improved, she eats poorly, chain-smokes in front of the TV all day and cannot be trusted with her medications).
She has an opportunity to move into a beautiful house just a few miles away that sits next door to a younger relative, who adores her despite everything and is eager to help her while respecting her boundaries. (I live across the country and cannot provide day-to-day help.) My mother would still live independently but would be far less isolated, in a safer neighborhood and in a house in vastly better condition. She would not be downsizing, would be surrounded by all her familiar belongings and have a private yard. If we hired someone to help her, the relative would be next door to keep an eye on things.
She has been alone in her current house for more than 50 years, however, and it’s almost as if the house itself is her partner. Leaving a home is hard for the elderly, but her mental illness magnifies her anguish tremendously. I worry that if she doesn’t move now, she will have to move into a senior home in the next one to three years anyway, which would be a thousand times worse for her.
Is it my responsibility to honor her choice to stay in an unhealthy, isolating home or to demand that she move to the new home, which is vastly better for her and would ease the burden of care on the relative and my anxiety about her safety but may prove traumatizing for her? Name Withheld
Much depends on your characterization of your mother’s dementia as still mild. If that’s the case, you don’t have the option of demanding that she take advantage of this opportunity. Once she reaches the point where she’s no longer capable of autonomous decision-making, it will be the task of whoever then has legal responsibility for her welfare to move her into the best available setting, which would not involve independent living. But for the moment, you have to address her as an autonomous person: by offering her good reasons for doing what would be best for her and by trying to dissuade her from being guided by bad reasons. This means acknowledging with her that leaving a lifelong home is, indeed, distressing in prospect and painful when it happens, while painting the right positive picture of the new home and neighborhood.
Of course, the psychological reality seems to be that your mother has never been good at taking advice, however wise or loving. As we all know, it can be hard to mark the line between persuading family members to do something and pressuring them to do it by emotional blackmail of some kind. The latter, though wrong, is especially tempting when faced with someone you care about who is making terrible decisions. That it is wrong doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be said for it: If it works, you will have made your mother’s declining years better for her and the family. But she’ll have to “own” the decision, in some sense, if it is to have all the benefits you’re hoping for.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)