The Journal Gazette
Friday, May 29, 2020 1:00 am

Return to campus? Weigh the risks first

Abe Schwab

Notre Dame, Purdue and IU have all announced their plans to resume face-to-face classes this fall. And this is understandable. Students surveyed want to be on campus and parents want them there, too. It's what the customer wants.

But taking part in face-to-face classes has costs that students and their parents should consider.

Face to face classes will increase the spread ofáthe coronavirus to students, employees and their families. We don't know how these infections will affect students, and it may be tempting to dismiss this concern. After all, the mortality rate seems very low, especially for 15-to-24-year-olds.


Woefully inadequate testing in the U.S. means we don't know how many people have died from COVID-19. Compared with the United States' six-year average, 30,000 more people have died this year. We have 2,000 extra deaths from non-COVID-19 pneumonia in Indiana. Only the most na´ve would believe that most of these extra deaths are from something other than undiagnosed COVID-19.

More importantly, mortality is only one of the possible harms of COVID-19. The long-term effects on cardiac and respiratory systems and other bodily functions are not fully known but are obviously severe in some cases in which the patient doesn't die. Without attention to the potentially life-long harms, both physical and financial, of COVID-19, students and their parents might inadvertently ignore significant non-lethal consequences of COVID-19.

And these outcomes are not limited to students. Students' families, employees and employees' families will also be subject to these harms. And many of them are not in the 15-24 age bracket.

It's not surprising that federal, local, and state governments would allow for individuals to take on these risky choices. We routinely value economic activity more than saving a single life. Preserving human life is important, but it's only worth so much.

A simple example: If we enforced a speed limit of 20 miles per hour on any road anywhere in the United States, we would have fewer fatalities from car crashes. We would save lives. And yet we allow speed limits of 70 mph, and in some states even higher than that. And this has economic benefits. Individuals can travel further for work, organizations can transport goods faster, etc. We've accepted that certain economic benefits are valuable enough to allow for a certain number of additional deaths.

We don't know in detail what will happen over the next year, but we do know that increasing interpersonal interactions will lead to more deaths and other severe medical complications from COVID-19. We don't know who will be infected, who will be hospitalized or who will die. But we know that when we increase our interpersonal interactions, some will. And you have to ask yourself – do you want to subject yourself or your children to that risk?

Abe Schwab is professor of philosophy and director of Ethics Across the Curriculum at Purdue Fort Wayne who specializes in applied ethics.

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