Covid-19 and the Trolley dilemma

Captured from trolley problem memes

The last thing I want to do is write a polarizing post. But I need help pulling away from this emotional ledge I am tottering over. 

I was completely onboard with the measure to protect our more vulnerable citizens when this all started. Who wouldn’t be willing to make such a small sacrifice to help others? But then, when the “Just for two weeks” stretched into years, when the “science” kept rewriting itself to suit new edicts, when the rules became nonsensical, I started to become less sympathetic. Not to the vulnerable citizens but to the value of what we were doing. 

Today I have entered a new phase in my levels of frustration. Today I learned that someone I love will lose their career, one they have already invested half their life in, because they are not willing to risk their life by taking the vaccine until it has been time tested.

But let me back up a bit and spend just a moment sharing how I started to lose my patience with the covid rules. My first introduction to the fact that the rules aren’t helping anyone may have been the mask rule pulling a 180, starting with the advice not to buy masks. They “don’t help because they are not individually fitted to you and are therefore useless, and in fact, may make matters worse by becoming a portable carrier of the virus” became “wear one or don’t enter a business because you are scum who doesn’t care about anyone but yourself”.  What – did masks magically get better? We can now use a head bandanna to cover our faces, where before it was scientifically believed that any mask that was not specifically tailored to our face was worse than not wearing one at all?

I really started to wonder the value of our efforts while attending a government function where everyone had to sit six feet apart, which meant a lot of attendees were forced to stand. So what, right? Save a life, right?  100 percent.

Except, those forced to stand had to do so in a crowded vestibule, so if there was going to be any transference of the virus, the chances of it happening went up, not down. And, as if covid rules had a sence of humor, those who had obtained a seat – six feet apart – were allowed to come out and reunite with those left standing, and all were permitted to hug to their hearts content. But I guess it follows the same logic as eating in public. We all know you can’t get covid while eating (the reason everybody wants to buy a food or drink on public transportation) or when outside at any distance (please hear the sarcasm in the above statement). But can you see how the rules are just KILLING me?

Same thing with businesses that remained open. The solution was to close all entrances but one, forcing people to crowd into a single spot rather being widely dispersed. They did this same trick throughout the shopping experience, from entrance to checkout, all while creating the illusion that they were doing it for your safety. And with so many business forced to close, those allowed to remain open (oddly, only the ones that were already rich) not only made a fortune while the poor became poorer, but they also gathered people to one place to shop…which again, made the odds of spreading the virus increase, not decrease.

But what really got me was the math, of which I admit, IS NOT my thing and I could be miscalculating. But if covid kills less than 1% of the entire population and we, while trying to protect that 1%, harm over 50%, are we really handling this correctly?  I DO NOT, and I can’t stress it enough, but I do not mean we should subscribe to the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest. What I do mean is that there must be a way to protect that 1% without throwing the harm onto others. 

It’s like the “trolley problem” except instead of deciding to intervene and kill one person to save the five, we are taking it upon ourselves to throw five people under the bus to buy ourselves time to reach the one.

Captured from trolley problem memes

A quick google search will populate pages of research done on the social and economic damage done by the edicts set down for covid. That quick glance would include suicide rates that have jumped in an unpleasant direction because children weren’t able to adapt to the sudden and drastic isolation; people who were forced out of their jobs, throwing them into poverty; and adults who had been saving for their retirement suddenly having to use their lifesavings to keep their families fed. And now, thanks to the push for the vaccine, people are feeling another round of venomous persecutions.

Which brings me back to today. Laws are being written that will cause even more poverty. People who have finally been allowed to go back to work will lose their jobs if they don’t get the vaccine. And here’s the core of my problem with it: We are told the vaccine works, but that it doesn’t actually prevent us from getting the virus, or even from spreading it, and that’s why we must still keep wearing our masks. I’m not entirely sure why my definition of the word ‘works’ varies from theirs, but, nonetheless, if we can still pass the virus after getting the vaccine, is it really in everyone’s best interest to make this vaccine mandatory? Is it worth ruining people’s careers, or forcing them to choose between long-term health risks or their jobs? Just for fun, I thought I’d look at the covid numbers today, here are the snapshots from my phone. Am I missing something? The numbers are going the wrong way?!??

Covid deaths before vaccine

Covid deaths after the release of vaccine

We know that the vaccine has some risks that are showing up in the immediate (for a small percentage of people) but what we don’t know, because it has not been time-tested, are the risks over the long-term. Ever hear of the anthrax vaccination? The military made the vaccination mandatory for forces deploying to the middle east just before and then after 9/11. (Also applied to DOD civilian contractors.) Not only did the untested vaccine turn out to have a list of long-term health risks (showing up after ten years), but it was later suspected that the anthrax letters that had reignited the need for the vaccine were sent by a person in the bio field to keep the waning vaccine relevant. Note: It’s important to know that the case against the mailer was unable to go any further and the suspicions will always be a likelihood, but not a fact. But what really hurts is that those who did their research on the vaccine (discovering government reports about the safety issues at the vaccine’s manufacturing plant, along with possible links to Gulf War Syndrome and cancer), and then refused the inoculation with evidence as to why it was unsafe, were persecuted. Some thrown into the brig, some sent to psychologists – because who in their right mind would want to refuse the vaccination that would prevent the damages of anthrax? Most lost their jobs and their retirement pay.

Sorry, I have gone just a bit off-track. I am ranting to try and make sense of why we are doing this to each other and in the process, I am losing sight of my goal.

In the beginning, the covid “stronger together’ propaganda worked for me: I love my neighbors and so I would gladly make sacrifices for them. But now I feel we are hurting our neighbors. We are hurting so many more than we are helping.  And today we are ruining the life of someone I love so very much and I am near to tears over it. So I rant. And I beg of you, dear reader: how hard would it be to help those who are at risk from this virus without throwing everyone else under the bus? How can we be stronger together without strangling each other with unhelpful edicts in the process?  How can we get to the point that we either have faith that the vaccine is doing it’s job for us and therefore don’t need to worry about anyone who hasn’t gotten it, because those who have are safe, or we admit it isn’t perfect and shouldn’t force everyone to take it.   

Captured from trolley problem memes

I truly want answers. I truly want solutions. But please don’t use the comment section to belittle another person’s personal beliefs with your own person beliefs, even if you feel yours are legitimate because the media you chose to believe in supports them. Trust me, we all think our beliefs are legitimate. For one brief moment, lets put aside our purchased beliefs and help find solutions that don’t create another trolley dilemma for the philosophers to debate over in future years.

Published by Annie Harmon

Visit me to learn more!

One thought on “Covid-19 and the Trolley dilemma

  1. Annie,

    Let me start by saying that I respect your views, and the way that you’ve stated them. You have captured a rational thought process that I think is shared by many in our society, and expressed it clearly and thoughtfully. At the end of your piece, you ask a number of questions, and end with the statement that you truly want answers, and solutions. In that vein, I thought I would respond and share a different perspective to see if we can build some mutual trust and find some common ground.

    First, I’d like to try to succinctly lay out how I’m interpreting what you’ve written. That way, if I’m misunderstanding, or misrepresenting your position, you could point out where I’m mistaken. I don’t want to waste time discussing a position that you don’t hold. So if I may be so bold, let me try to restate your case in my words to make sure I’ve got it right.

    You are willing to make sacrifices to protect others in our society from getting sick. However, you are not willing to make those sacrifices if the sacrifices that are being asked of you are ineffective or obviously counterproductive. You also believe that the negative impacts of the sacrifices being imposed on Americans are now more severe than the problem that they were designed to solve. In addition, those sacrifices are not being spread evenly across the population, but are being imposed more heavily on the poor, while the richest Americans not only aren’t sacrificing, they are benefitting.

    When it comes to the vaccine mandate, you believe that since people who have been vaccinated can still contract and spread the virus, then it obviously isn’t effective. When this is combined with the rational and reasonable concerns about negative health effects from the vaccine (small numbers in the short term, unknown in the long term), then it doesn’t make sense to force people to take the vaccine. In addition, there is precedent for the US Government not being completely honest or ethical in their application of vaccines (anthrax vaccine history). While this isn’t directly related to the current vaccine, it provides more reason to think that it is reasonable to be concerned about long term health effects.

    Finally, you end with a number of questions. How hard would it be to help those who are at risk from this virus without strangling each other with unhelpful edicts? I’m not sure if this is meant to be a rhetorical question, one to which you believe the answer is obvious, or whether you are truly unsure of how we could do this. It doesn’t seem like there is an obvious answer to me.

    If I’ve missed anything important in your position or arguments, or if I seem to be misunderstanding your position, please take the time to correct me. We can’t find common ground if we don’t understand each other’s positions. Having said that, I’ll start with my thoughts, and I can rework them if I’m not addressing the right points.

    I think the key to this discussion is evaluating risk. It is disappointing to me to hear people on both sides of this discussion acting as if the risks that the other side is concerned about aren’t real, or don’t warrant respect.

    When we evaluate risk, we need to look at both the likelihood and the consequence of that risk. Things that are high consequence, but low likelihood may still be considered low risk. An example here is eating pre-packaged food. Every year, a small number of people die because of E-coli that they contract from pre-packaged food. This is a very high consequence event, but the likelihood that you will be one of those people is very small. Therefore, we assess the risk to be low, and we eat the pre-packaged food rather than going through the effort of growing all of our own food. On the other hand, high likelihood events that have low consequences are also low-risk. An example here might be eating a food that you know is likely to give you heartburn. The heartburn is unpleasant, but only lasts a short time, so we assess this to be low risk and we eat the food because it tastes good.

    On the one side, there is the risk of COVID continuing to spread throughout the population without intervention. The likelihood of this outcome is almost certain. With no intervention, everyone in America and likely the world will eventually contract COVID. We know this with near 100% certainty. So what is the consequence of this risk? According to the best numbers we have right now, a little over 6% of people who contract COVID require hospitalization. A little over 1% will die. ( These are based on the total number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths for unvaccinated people between April 4 and July 17, 2021. If we extrapolate that out to the entire US population, this represents 20 million people who will have such a severe case that they will need to be in the hospital, and over 3 million of our fellow Americans will die. As of today, 400,000 Americans have died from COVID. These seem like bad outcomes. The question is, what is the alternative?

    In order to simplify the discussion, I’ll put aside mask wearing and social distancing requirements. We can discuss those later if you’d like to delve in. I think that they have some effectiveness, but the vaccine is really the place where we can make a difference.

    On the other side of the ledger, people are making assessments of the risk associated with taking the vaccine. The vaccine is not without risk. As you stated, a small number of people have had negative reactions to the COVID vaccine. Thrombosis is occurring at a rate of 1 in 150,000 (or 0.0007%). 1 in 36,000 (or 0.003%) develop myocarditis or pericarditis (both of which are treatable) ( These are significant consequence events, with known likelihoods.

    There is also the risk of long-term effects associated with the vaccine that we don’t currently know about. It is very hard to evaluate the likelihood of these types of risks, and the consequences could be minimal to severe.
    But of course, we can’t effectively evaluate the risks if we don’t understand the effectiveness of the vaccine. If taking the vaccine doesn’t work, then it doesn’t make sense to take even a small risk for no benefit. Again, what does the data say?

    In the same study that I cited above, we have rates of infection, hospitalization, and death among people who were fully vaccinated. This study is particularly useful, because the vaccination rate in the country was about 50% at that time, so if the vaccine was ineffective, you would expect that about the same number of people would get sick who were vaccinated as unvaccinated. This is not the case.

    570,000 people who were unvaccinated got COVID during that time. For people who were vaccinated, that number dropped to 46,000. So the vaccine is not 100% guaranteed to keep you safe, but it reduces the likelihood of getting sick by 94%, That is one of the most effective vaccines that we have ever developed. Very few vaccines have that level of effectiveness. The hospitalization and death rates are similar between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. This means that if you are one of the unlucky 6% that gets sick, you still have a 6% chance of hospitalization and a 1% chance of dying.

    So, all this information is out there, why can’t we just let everyone decide for themselves whether they would prefer the 6% chance of hospitalization and 1% chance of dying or the 0.0003% chance of severe side effect (or unkown risk of long term health effects)? Isn’t this just a personal choice?

    This rests on a misconception of how vaccines work. The severe reduction in cases that happens when the majority of the population is vaccinated is enough to wipe out the disease. If we could get everyone in the country who is medically able to be vaccinated to take the vaccine, we could eliminate COVID. This is because so few people would get the disease, and have so few people to give it to, that it would just die out. If everyone who gets COVID gives it to 3 other people, we have exponential growth of the disease. However, if we reduce that by 94%, then everyone who gets it gives it to 0.2 people (or for every 5 people who get COVID, only 1 other person gets it). With this math, we could eliminate the disease entirely. This will save millions of lives.

    If 40% of the population decides that they don’t want to take the risk, then we don’t get this benefit. Worse, the virus will have more time to mutate, and because such a large portion of the population is vaccinated, this will select for strains that are vaccine resistant. This leads to the vaccine being entirely useless in a few years, and everyone being at risk again. So your friends decision not to vaccinate is actually putting me and my family at risk.

    It seems obvious to me that based on this logic, everyone should take the vaccine. I’m uncomfortable with the government mandating it because I truly believe in freedom, but I think this might be exactly the trolley problem that you described. If we can save millions of lives and countless tens of millions more from the suffering associated with a hospitalization due to COVID, it may be worth it to mandate the vaccine for the people who are having difficulty evaluating the risks correctly.

    You asked, “How hard would it be to help those who are at risk without throwing everyone else under the bus?” I think it is impossible. I think if we squander this opportunity to use the vaccine to eliminate COVID, we will be dooming those at risk to death and hospitalization. Full stop. I don’t see anyone offering a different option. If you have heard another solution that protects those at risk without vaccinating everyone, please share it.

    You asked, “How can we get to the point that we either have faith that the vaccine is doing it’s job for us and therefore don’t need to worry about anyone who hasn’t gotten it, because those who have are safe, or we admit it isn’t perfect and shouldn’t force everyone to take it.” Hopefully I’ve addressed this question. This is a black and white fallacy. The vaccine isn’t perfect in the sense that it is not 100% effective. However it is extremely effective. That is exactly why everyone needs to take it so that the reduction in cases that we get from the vaccine will eliminate the virus.

    You wrap up with, “I truly want answers. I truly want solutions.” The answer is right in front of us. We eliminated Polio, Small Pox, Diptheria, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, etc. with the use of mass vaccination. It really is the only way out, and it has worked countless times before. I don’t understand why we would squander this opportunity to repeat these successes.

    Thanks for reading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s