Health

My Patients Need Me. Can I Quit?

I live in a city that offers Covid vaccines to volunteers who have worked 15 hours at a vaccination site. Not surprisingly, the demand for volunteer slots far exceeds supply. I got my first shot last week. I have more volunteer shifts scheduled for the next few weeks. Should I relinquish those shifts to others, so they can be vaccinated? Does the answer change if I am assured that my shifts will go to friends who I know are also hard-working volunteers? I feel an obligation to continue volunteering because a) I don’t want to disappear now that I have the vaccine; and b) even after just one shot, it is probably safer for me to interact with patients (who are old or otherwise vulnerable) than someone who has not been vaccinated at all. However, I also feel a duty to let someone else be vaccinated. Elaine, Dallas

Your vaccination was done early not in order to get you to volunteer but in order to make your shifts safer for you and for those you serve. Stopping now undermines that purpose. You’re considering stopping so that someone else can be vaccinated. But someone will get that dose whatever you do. You’ve framed the question to yourself in terms of a “duty to let someone else be vaccinated.” But suppose you asked whether it’s OK to game the system in order to favor one or two of your friends. I’m sure that prospect wouldn’t sit well with you.

Giving particular weight to you and yours doesn’t mean you can ignore the moral demands of others.

By the logic of this “duty” you invoke, each of your diligent friends should spend the minimum amount of time working at the site in order to be vaccinated and then pass the opportunity along to another. Your duty is, in fact, to do your job and recognize that the vaccination program doesn’t exist for the benefit of those who work there. Volunteering was a gift; but if you treat the work as means for vaccinating friends who don’t otherwise qualify, it’s in danger of becoming a grift. You’d only be diverting vaccine doses away from people who have been declared eligible by a system of vaccine distribution that seeks to achieve a variety of aims. Allowing people who work at a vaccination site to get special treatment for their friends isn’t one of those aims.


In my state and possibly elsewhere, food-bank volunteers get priority access to coronavirus vaccines. Is it ethical to start volunteering at a food bank in order to be vaccinated sooner? Name Withheld, Somerville, Mass.

The best kind of people do what is right for the best reasons. The moral saint would volunteer unselfishly at the food bank because it’s a way of serving the disadvantaged in her community. You’re admitting you’re not that perfect person. But volunteering for the food bank, even if for less-than-admirable reasons, is still a good thing to do. Once again, the vaccination isn’t a reward for that good act; it’s necessary to reduce the chances of people (including you) becoming infected at the food bank. Still, it can also be an incentive to sign up, as people in your community obviously know, and in these circumstances, it’s not terribly likely that you’ll get loads of unmerited kudos for showing up. Were you then to contrive for the job to carousel among your otherwise vaccine-ineligible friends, though, you’d be abusing the arrangement. If your motives are self-serving, make sure that your actions are above board.


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 ethicist@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)


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