Sunday, September 6, 2020

A Modest Suggestion: It's Time for Georgetown to Take an Even Stronger Stance Against Imposing Risk

Many universities are regulated and mandating social distancing rules for students living on campus or university property, or for students working and studying on campus. Northeastern just suspended a bunch of students for having a party in a hotel-turned-dorm the university rented. (You'll be pleased to know Northeastern plans to keep the students' tuition even though the students cannot return until next year.)  But as far as I know, Georgetown is the only college bold and noble enough to regulate the social distancing behavior of students who aren't allowed to set foot on university property. (Maybe others are doing so, but I haven't been able to discover any through Google searches.) Bad ass! 

I wonder, though, why Georgetown is stopping here. COVID-19 is certainly worse than, say, gonorrhea or the seasonal flu, but these are both serious diseases. The seasonal flu in particular has an unfortunately tendency to kill younger children, unlike COVID-19, which mostly takes out boomers. 

I propose Georgetown show its genuine commitment to cura personalis and to public health by expanding its regulatory powers and expanding the threat and use of punishment to control students.

First, they should do some calculus: The university is threatening to suspend students who violate its guidelines by, say, having 10 friends gather together in their privately rented apartments in Washington DC, in leases to which the university has no legal standing and is not a party. 

Presumably, when students do so, they impose some risk upon others, including others not at the party who might later be infected. I propose we determine the "expected risk" of such activities, which is, roughly, the cost of negative health effects discounted by the probability such effects which occur as a result of their actions, minus the positive mental and physical health benefits of social gatherings. This isn't easy, but hey, we have a medical school and lots of smart faculty trained in this kind of thing, so it shouldn't be so hard. I can't gather the relevant data myself, but I know how to make the calculations once others get the data. So I volunteer to help!

The university should then set a rule that if having 10 masked people--none of whom are even allowed on campus--at a party in your privately rented or even privately owned apartment or house near campus means you get suspended, then any risky healthy behavior with equal or greater expected risk also gets you a suspension. If the expected risk (to others) of a 10-person, masked gathering in your backyard in the house you're renting in Foxhall = X, then all activities with expected risk to others X should also earn you a suspension. Fairness is a Georgetown value, after all. 

It might turn out, once we do the calculations, that having sex, especially unprotected sex, with multiple partners in a month has equal expected risk. (Sure, most STDs are less dangerous, but the risk of STD spread is high.) We could have an anonymous noncompliance reporting line to help the university control such behaviors. After all, the university is already encouraging students to rat out other students who violate the university's social distancing rules. 

Or, perhaps, any student who has flu symptoms during flu season and doesn't immediately self-isolate should be suspended. 

Further, there's no reason to stop at disease per se. Why not suspend students for driving fast and getting speeding tickets, or for any reckless driving chargers? Why not suspend students for their activism with any dangerous ideologies? (The probability of success is lower, but the possible harm is much higher if they succeed.)

Of course, this all depends on what the actual expected risk of having a party is. But once we get the calculations, we should apply this rule universally to any activity which imposes the same expected risk to others.