News & Politics

My Neighbor has Covid. Am I a Bad Person If I Tell the Rest of the Block?

A professional ethicist answers the tricky questions we face during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I’m a married father of three children in Silver Spring, Md. We live in a fairly close-knit neighborhood—a lot of us hang out on the stoops of each other’s houses, at an appropriate social distance, after work and on weekends. Last week, one of my neighbors told me that another couple in our neighborhood had contracted covid after going on a vacation to Florida. I’m wondering if it’s ethical for me to share this information with others who live in our neighborhood? On the one hand, it doesn’t feel right to gossip behind the backs of our neighbors about a potentially fatal disease. But on the other hand, our lives are at risk too. And by making sure that everyone in the neighborhood knows that this couple has the virus, we can avoid coming in contact with them and limit our risk of contagion. As I say, we always try to keep an appropriate social distance when we get together for outdoor gatherings, but accidents do happen. What’s the ethical thing for me to do here?

Karen Stohr is an associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics: I would say that the first thing you should do is to check on your sick neighbors and find out if there’s anything you can do to help them. Even if they have mild cases, they may need someone to get them groceries, or walk their dog, or mow their lawn. Obviously you should take appropriate precautions if you interact with them, but being a good neighbor is still important in a pandemic. In fact, it’s probably more important than ever.

But let’s suppose that they don’t need help and you’re just wondering if you can spread the news. You could start by asking the neighbor who told you whether the information is public. If the couple doesn’t care who knows, then you are probably free to tell whomever you want, including your other neighbors. But if the information was provided in confidence and your informant violated that confidence, then you need to consider whether you have the right to pass along information that you aren’t supposed to have in the first place. Likely you don’t, unless there is an immediate, serious threat to someone’s health or well-being.

Are your neighbors actually joining your impromptu block parties while they are still positive with Covid? If so, then I think you’d be justified in saying something. I’d start with talking to them directly, since you or your informant may have the facts wrong. But if they are quarantining inside their home, then neither you nor your neighbors are in danger of becoming ill from them. In that case, what you’re asking is whether it’s okay to spread this information as gossip.

Gossiping is what neighbors do and it’s usually harmless. But it can also have a dark side. Although having Covid shouldn’t be a source of shame, those who have come down with it often feel like they are being judged by other people for having been careless or selfish. (You mention this couple’s trip to Florida, but consider that you don’t really know where or how they contracted it. Maybe they made risky choices, but maybe they didn’t.) I’m inclined to think this is counterproductive. If people are reluctant to admit to having Covid, it will be even harder to contain the spread. So if you do decide to spill the tea about your sick neighbors, try to do it without blaming or ostracizing them. You can keep yourselves safe without turning them into the neighborhood pariahs. There’s a fair bit of luck involved when it comes to this virus and next time, it could be you with the positive test result.

As told to Luke Mullins.

Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.