The Volokh Conspiracy

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Did You Lie About COVID During The Pandemic?

Parents were often not truthful about whether their children were vaccinated or needed to quarantine.


The pandemic ushered in a wave of difficult ethical choices. In the early days, there were shortages of N-95 masks, ventilators, and certain forms of treatment. How would those scarce resources be rationed? What about "essential" workers who were immunocompromised? Could they be forced to work? And later, there were different ways in which the vaccines were distributed. The elderly and the immunocompromised generally went first. But people with certain comorbidities could jump the line. And in some places, governments administered vaccines based on racial preferences (or some proxy like zip code).

Throughout this process, people had perverse incentives to lie. For example, a person could lie or exaggerate about the extent to which she was immunocompromised. That term was broadly understood. And there was no real way of linking a particular health condition to COVID. A person who did not want to work in a crowded workplace had an incentive to embellish a health condition. There were similar perverse incentives for declaring "comorbidities." Take "obesity" for example. Many people who would not generally call themselves "obese" would promptly check that box if it helped them get a vaccine quicker. There is also the issue of bribery. I know that people paid money under the table to get the vaccines quicker. Finally, there is the issue of testing and quarantining. We were all on the honor system. A person could conceal her symptoms, or chalk a cough up to allergies. There was no way to track these sorts of things.

A recent paper published by Journal of American Medical Association considers how often parents lied about COVID during the pandemic. The Hill summarizes the results:

In a survey of 580 parents with children under the age of 18, about 26 percent reported that they misrepresented or lied about their children's COVID-19 status, according to a study published Monday in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Out of seven behaviors related to adherence to public health guidelines, the most common behaviors were not informing someone who spent time with their child that they suspected or knew that their child had COVID-19, at 24 percent of respondents, and allowing their child to break quarantine, at about 21 percent of respondents.

About 19 percent of respondents did not get their child tested for the coronavirus when they thought their child might have COVID-19.

Other behaviors included:

  • Stating that their child was older than they were so that they could get vaccinated (9.7 percent of respondents)
  • Saying that their child was vaccinated when they were not (10.1 percent)
  • Saying their child was not vaccinated when they were (12.2 percent)
  • And saying that their child did not need to quarantine when they actually did need to (16.4 percent)

These numbers cut in both directions. Roughly the same percentage of parents lied to get their children vaccinated, as parents who lied so their children would not have to get vaccinated.

Perhaps these parents justified the lie, in the interest of protecting the health of their children–either because they believed the vaccine would help or hurt their child. Or they lied about quarantining to avoid having to keep their children out of social circles. At least in this limited regard, truth was sacrificed during the pandemic. I suspect these sorts of lies can be extrapolated to wide ranges of behavior during these unsettled times.