Home View from Underground Underground Ethics: Coughing in the age of Swine Flu

Underground Ethics: Coughing in the age of Swine Flu

by Benjamin Kabak

In a few hours, I’m going to get both my flu shot and my H1N1 vaccine. Luckily, NYU is making these sometimes hard-to-get shots available to students, but I know that many New Yorkers do not enjoy the benefits of group health care. What do you do then when someone on your train is hacking up a lung without so much as cursory attempt to cover his or her mouth?

In today’s economy, people can ill afford to take sick days. Workers need to be at their best, and most people need the money. When one gets sick, one is often inclined to ride it out while heading to work, and generally, riding it out means, literally, riding on the subway while sick. Meanwhile, with Swine Flu fears on the rise, with the government proclaiming health emergencies, New Yorkers generally wary of the petri dish of the subways are even less tolerance of the underground coughers.

Today, Lawrence Delevinge has a story for our times about a fight on his D train over Swine Flu fears:

If you think tensions over swine flu are exaggerated, think again. We saw a violent altercation between two women this morning on the New York City subway because of H1N1.

The D train was traveling south from Rockefeller Center (50th Street) to Bryant Park (42nd Street) shortly after 8:00 am. One woman, perhaps 5’7″, slightly overweight and with dyed reddish blond hair, was coughing without covering her mouth. Maybe it was swine flu, maybe not.

Another woman, roughly 5’2″, stocky, with her blond hair in a slicked-back bun, was nearby, clearly displeased. She made a curt comment to the first woman, something to the effect of “you need to cover your mouth — I don’t want swine flu.”

The second woman continued to yell at the cougher, berating her until she reacted, beginning to curse back. It escalated, and the accosting woman yelled “get the conductor!”

No one got the conductor — it just seemed like a shouting match — but as the train pulled into 42nd Street, the coughing woman spit on the other, provoking what sounded like a punch from the reaction of the crowd (we didn’t directly see it). Then the cougher attempted to exit the train as the doors were open, but the second woman grabbed her by the back of the hair, violently yanking her down to the floor.

Eventually, the two were separated, and one of the women got off at 34th St. The other passengers, though, sided with the displeased straphanger. They noted that the offender “wasn’t even covering her mouth,” and another passenger said that he “could have decked her too. That swine flu is treacherous.”

There is little doubt in my mind what the proper course of action is. Although these two women should not have come to blows, a person who is sick but has to ride the subway must make every effort to limit the spray. I routinely see people coughing without covering their mouths, and it is, frankly, disgusting. Even without Swine Flu fears, people riding the subway should be more mindful of their germs. With the threat of a debilitating illness, though, now is the time to be ever-vigilant.

I know some of you might say I don’t go far enough. Maybe people who are sick shouldn’t ride the subways at all. In an ideal world, they would stay home and recuperate. But when a sick day isn’t an option, the rest of us on a packed subway car shouldn’t have to suffer as well.

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Evan November 2, 2009 - 2:38 pm

I agree. People need to be more aware.

I was sitting next to a fellow who kept sneezing with out covering his nose and mouth. I politely offered him a tissue…which was refused. Luckily I have a pretty strong immune system but it was just gross.

Mike HC November 2, 2009 - 3:03 pm

People do need to cover their mouths when they cough no matter where they are. It is just common courtesy.

But how much does that actually help in the long run? The “germs” will land in the persons hand, which will then touch the handles in the subway, or will touch the seat, railings, etc … Once the germs are released, whether they are on someones hand, or out in the air, they are out. It is unavoidable, short of sneezing into an almost airtight container, then quickly closing it, which would be ridiculous.

Really funny story though. The exaggerated swine flu fears are making women come to blows! You gotta love this stuff!

PS … I have access to flu shots and swine flu shots but still opt not to take them. God only knows what you are allowing these people to inject into you. I hope I don’t get burned by my decision, but I am just not that trustworthy.

Evan November 2, 2009 - 3:15 pm

People can sneeze or cough into the crook of their elbows. That way germs don’t get on hands which don’t get on the subway poles and such.

Mike HC November 2, 2009 - 3:35 pm

I like it. I’m in for the “crook of the elbow” rule

Cen-Sin November 2, 2009 - 5:33 pm

I was supposed to have the shot, but since it’s running low I’d rather let someone with a higher risk get to them first.

Mike HC November 2, 2009 - 5:45 pm

Your reason for not getting the flu shot sounds a lot better than mine. Thanks for making me look bad! Just kidding, ha

Marsha November 2, 2009 - 3:19 pm

People are supposed to cough and sneeze into their sleeves or a tissue/handkerchief if handy. With this method, hands remain clean. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/covercough.htm

jon November 2, 2009 - 3:25 pm

She absolutely should have covered her mouth, if only for politeness sake.

On the other hand, people shouldn’t assume tht just because someone coughs, they are ill. There are many other reasons for people to cough. The woman may be a smoker, she may have gotten something stuck in her throat before getting on the subway etc, or even just have a dry scratchy throat, totally unrelated to any illness.

R2 November 2, 2009 - 4:31 pm

I got the death stare from an old lady when I coughed into the crook of my elbow. She was sitting down next to the door and I was leaning against it next to her.

After the death stare, she got up from her seat and moved to the other side of the train.

All I could do was giggle (and cough as a result since I really was sick)

Both shots are readily available to me and I refuse to take them. Still, common courtesy dictates covering one’s mouth appropriately.

E. Aron November 2, 2009 - 4:38 pm

This is a post about common courtesy. Let’s continue to advocate for people not standing directly in front of subway doors preventing ingress and egress in addition to the simple gesture of covering one’s mouth when necessary.

Another pet peeve of mine – seated subway riders who stand up before the train reaches their stop while I’m standing directly in front of them because the train is packed. There’s nowhere for me to go, and I assure you I recognize your need to get up and I will get out of your way to the best of my ability when some space frees up, inconsiderate subway rider. There. I feel better.

Mike HC November 2, 2009 - 5:06 pm

How about when the train is packed and someone’s crotch or ass ends up right in the seated person’s face. I know that it is crowded, but maybe they can stand sideways or something. There is definitely a way they can stand to avoid this, but they pretend to not really notice. It gets ridiculous sometimes how close it gets. I either have to turn my head or close my eyes sometimes. There. I feel better.

Alon Levy November 2, 2009 - 5:55 pm

Ben, the problem isn’t today’s economy. It’s the fact that the US doesn’t mandate paid sick leave the way normal countries do, and New York has chosen not to step in and mandate paid sick days on its own. You should at least mention that there’s a campaign on the subway calling for the city to require employers to offer paid sick leave, instead of ignore it and at the same time dismiss it as unrealistic.

Kris Datta November 2, 2009 - 9:04 pm

People need to stop using swine flu as an excuse for people covering their mouth when coughing or sneezing, when the vast majority of these people will never get swine flu anyway.

A teaspoon of *&#!!* helps the medicine go down « Life Is A Cookie November 5, 2009 - 6:07 am

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