Reciprocity in Quarantine: Observations from Wuhan’s COVID-19 Digital Landscapes

Asian Bioethics Review 12 (4):435-457 (2020)
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The 2003 SARS pandemic heralded the return of quarantine as a vital part of twenty-first century public health practice. Over the last two decades, MERS, Ebola, and other emerging infectious diseases each posed unique challenges for applying quarantine ethics lessons learned from the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 outbreak. In an increasingly interdependent and connected global world, the use of quarantine to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19, similarly poses new and unexpected ethical challenges. In this essay, we look beyond standard debates about the ethics of quarantine and state power to explore a key quarantine principle, Reciprocity, and how it is being negotiated by healthcare workers, volunteers, and citizens in the context of the Wuhan, China, quarantine. We analyze Reciprocity through the lens of two Wuhan case studies: healthcare workers, particularly nurses, who are simultaneously essential workers and quarantined citizens, asked by their hospital administration to shave their heads because adequate PPE was not available, and citizen-to-citizen mutual aid societies attempting to fill gaps in essential supplies left unfilled by the state. We analyze social media and video-blogs from Wuhan, on the platforms of Douyin and Sina Weibo, to understand how people define and respond to ethical and legal obligations in the wake of COVID-19. It is no surprise that quarantine principles from the 2003 SARS outbreak are inadequate for COVID-19 and that both infectious disease outbreak responses and ethics must adapt to the virtual age. We offer ideas to strengthen and clarify Reciprocal obligations for the state, hospital administrators, and citizens as the globe prepares for the next wave of COVID-19 circulating now.



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