The problem may be that sick-pay rules are too strict for employees, not too generous. Given the need to pay the rent, many low-paid workers may feel they have to work unless they are so sick as to be physically incapable of leaving the house. But things may be changing. In America the Democrats have long proposed statutory sick leave. President Donald Trump now talks of emergency relief for sick workers.
British policy has also shifted. Statutory sick pay will now be payable on the first day of absence, rather than the fourth. In its budget on March 11th the government removed a minimum income requirement that kept many part-time workers from qualifying for sick pay. It will also allow workers to get a sick note online rather than travel to a clinic and risk infecting other patients. Further change may still be needed. The statutory weekly rate, at £94.25 ($123), is less than 20% of average earnings, and may tempt more workers to turn up when feeling iffy.
At some stage in their careers most people will have turned up to work when they were feeling under the weather, be it because of a looming deadline or for fear of displeasing their boss. The health of fellow citizens, whether at work or on public transport, tends to be treated as collateral damage.
In a world where global travel is common and easy, and diseases have the scope to spread quickly, social norms may therefore need to change. That means not just washing hands, or indeed forgoing the handshake as a greeting. It could also require a shift in attitudes towards workers who turn up while sick and potentially infectious, from plaudits for their diligence to scorn for their lack of consideration.
Countering pandemics requires all sorts of public action, from forging new social norms to devising vaccines that authorities have the duty to supply. Ensuring that workers do not have a financial incentive to spread disease is another example. That requires governments to guarantee a decent level of sick pay, and rules on sick leave that do not punish responsible citizens.