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In Oregon, the number of primary care physicians and hospital beds available is small in comparison to the potential need if this epidemic gets out of hand

If compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe, as Albert Einstein famously said, then the human emotion of guilt must be a close second.

This comes to mind this week in Oregon, as people struggle with the question of how to practice social distancing in the workplace. In a culture that revolves around work, for identity as well as everyday sustenance, too many employees — not to mention their bosses — may be compelled by a sense of guilt to come into the office or other workplace. Staying away from your job site when you are seemingly healthy just feels wrong and it triggers that twinge of guilt you experienced when you played hooky from school.

Adding to the guilty feeling is an elitist whiff to the work-from-home movement. The jobs that lend themselves to telecommuting tend to be the ones that already are indoors with no heavy lifting. The people who still must report to work are doing the lifting — literally and figuratively — for everyone else.

But as more and more health experts are pointing out, the real guilt ought not be associated with remote work, but with continuing to show up at the office if you don't really have to. This advice comes with a huge caveat, which is that many, many people do not have a choice. Obviously, health care and public safety workers must be on the job, and retail establishments and restaurants cannot operate without service workers.

In our own business here at Pamplin Media Group, we must have press operators and distribution employees working on site, or our printed newspapers and the vital information they contain will not get produced. Other businesses, such as warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturers, face a similar dilemma. The economy, which already is decelerating, will come to a screeching halt if every business shuts down.

However, that puts an even greater onus on those who do have options to make the moral choice, which is to use laptops, tablets and smart phones to work from home whenever possible during this pandemic. Health experts have defined the goal for us: Slow the virus down enough that it doesn't overwhelm the health-care system, as has occurred in some areas of Italy. In that country, because of the large number of severe cases, doctors have been told to prioritize treatment in favor of those most likely to recover.

In other words, they have to decide who lives and who might die.

In Oregon, the number of primary care physicians and hospital beds available is small in comparison to the potential need if this epidemic gets out of hand. You may think you are not at risk of the most severe expressions of COVID-19, but if you get sick, you could end up taking precious resources away from someone who is at great risk.

It's a matter of defending the herd. Anyone who can keep healthy through social distancing should do so, not just for their own sake, but to help protect people who are most vulnerable to this virus. In doing so, they'll also relieve the burden on courageous doctors and nurses who are on the front lines fighting this disease.

In other words, don't feel guilty about keeping your distance right now, if you have that option. Rather, feel guilty about taking unnecessary risks and thereby increasing the danger to others.


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