The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on balancing personal loyalties against possible Covid exposure in this phase of the pandemic.
My husband and I employ a wonderful young woman to care for our two children after school. They love her dearly, and we feel incredibly lucky to have her, except for one thing: She is unvaccinated. We’ve been slow to confront the situation, but with Omicron spreading widely in our community, we’re torn about whether we can continue to allow her to work for us.
Our after-school babysitter comes from a minority community with an understandably low trust in government and the medical profession. Her community has been skeptical of the vaccine and has one of the lowest vaccination rates in our city. Over time, her family has been vaccinated. But she has been influenced by online misinformation about the vaccine’s impact on fertility and possible allergic reactions.
Rapid tests are free and easily available here, so she has been testing twice weekly. But the risk calculus feels like it has changed due to the infectiousness of Omicron. Still, we are heartsick about the idea of firing her. And firing someone because they make a choice about their personal medical care feels like an expression of white supremacy, even if this choice affects us. Never mind that vaccines are less protective against Omicron and so less effective in stopping the virus’s spread.
My head is telling me that we must tell her we don’t feel comfortable allowing someone who is unvaccinated to care for our children, but my heart is troubled. Name Withheld
In the United States, anyway, age and education are more powerful predictors of vaccine hesitancy than race or ethnicity. So it makes a difference that the modal age of white Americans is 58, while that of Black Americans is 27 (going by a 2019 study). Research indicates that American adults who have no more than a high-school education are much more likely to be strongly vaccine-hesitant; rates of hesitancy among people with a college degree or more are substantially lower than among those without.
Once you look at people with matched age and education levels, racial and ethnic disparities don’t loom as large. As it happens, Black and Hispanic adults currently report higher levels of trust in government than white adults do. (Although academics and journalists routinely suggest that Black Americans are wary of the medical establishment because of the lamentable history of the Tuskegee experiment — notwithstanding the fact that it involved a failure to provide treatment — Tuskegee rarely comes up in actual surveys of such people.) Party affiliation is predictive as well. A national survey last October found that 2 percent of Democrats but 31 percent of Republicans said they definitely would not be vaccinated. So the fact that the unvaccinated skew heavily Republican may help explain why in Mississippi and West Virginia, say, Black people have higher vaccination rates than white people. And various other factors come into play. Hispanic adult vaccination rates, having lagged behind the national average, now slightly exceed it, according to the C.D.C. Yes, socially vulnerable communities have been susceptible to vaccine misinformation. My point is merely that requiring someone who cares for your child to be vaccinated is not necessarily an expression of white supremacy.
Beyond this, the risk calculus is complicated in the current phase of the pandemic. Your babysitter is a vaccine skeptic, not a Covid skeptic, and there are the familiar measures that she and the children can take, and perhaps do take, to reduce the odds of infection. Covid seldom poses a serious risk to young children without other health impairments, while Omicron infections among boosted adults have mainly been on the milder side. What’s more, there are risks for your children in starting out with new minders; you do not have reason to trust them as fully as someone you’ve known for a while.
Requiring someone who cares for your child to be vaccinated is not necessarily an expression of white supremacy.
Confronting the issue starts with more conversation. You can reassure her about those internet fables concerning fertility, directing her to the plain assurances on the C.D.C. website. (The C.D.C. actively recommends vaccination for those trying to become pregnant.) Once people have wormholed into the antivax metaverse, I realize, it can be hard to bring them back. But make sure she’s aware of what data from the Omicron surge indicate: that unvaccinated people are an order of magnitude more likely to be hospitalized and to die than the vaccinated are.
If you’ve already discussed all this with her to no avail, you may feel that the risks to your family are still high enough that you can no longer employ her. (Though, again, this isn’t an easy call, especially while the incidence of infection declines.) You admirably worry about abusing a position of power over her. But if you have a respectful conversation with her about these matters, listening as well as talking, you will be exercising your power to decide whether she continues to work with you; you will not be abusing that power.
New York City recently required private employers to keep records of employees’ proof of vaccination. My building has interpreted this mandate to apply to anyone who does any work in an apartment, even dog walkers. I am an attorney, and I do not believe this is a correct interpretation, nor do my lawyer friends.
I believe my dog walker is unvaccinated. They always wear a mask in the building and are only inside long enough to get the dog and bring her back. I am strongly pro-vaccination, and I think vaccine mandates can be appropriate. However, I do not think unvaccinated people should be denied basic rights like earning a living. Given how little time the dog walker spends in the building, they are very unlikely to infect anyone. Am I ethically required to enforce this mandate? Name Withheld
Even if this interpretation of the mandate is mistaken, the building is entitled to make rules about people who come into it for work. Omicron is extremely contagious, unvaccinated people pose more risk than vaccinated ones and the best masks reduce but do not eliminate the risk of contagion, especially in a small space like an elevator. So you can understand the rationale for this policy, whether or not you agree with it. And you can’t unilaterally amend the rules to accord with your own judgment. The right way to proceed, given your concerns, is to get the building’s management to change its interpretation of the rules, by arguing that the interpretation is unwarranted and the policy ill considered. In the meantime, compliance is hardly very burdensome if you are working from home. All you need to do is take your dog downstairs yourself and meet the dog walker outside.
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I am a product of an extramarital affair. My nonbiological father has always recognized me as his own child, and I regard him as my father. But I want to know who my biological father is — out of curiosity and to find out about any family predispositions to disease, etc. — and my mother has never told me. I’d like to do a DNA test, but I am concerned about the disruption I might cause to my biological father’s family, assuming they do not know about his extramarital affair. What to do? Name Withheld
You’re right that entering your results on a DNA testing service like Ancestry, MyHeritage or 23andMe can have disruptive consequences. Although your biological father might not have joined such a site, relatives of his, including his offspring, could have. The services typically require consent for names to be exchanged. But if someone is notified that a person with a “predicted relationship” of half-sibling wishes to contact her, the cat is already part way out of the bag.
Tell your mother what you have in mind and ask her again what she’s been keeping from you. Maybe you can agree with her, in advance, about how you will use the information. It’s natural that you should be curious about your biological father; it’s understandable, too, that your mother should wish to draw a curtain over this episode. But her wishes are being satisfied at a high cost. In the internet era, you can learn a lot about someone from afar. And if you were able to contact him directly, you could do so without alerting his family.
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 email@example.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.)