The moral quagmire of coronavirus and 'Big Brother'

Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)As of midday Thursday, the US was preparing for the coronavirus pandemic to last up to 18 months. Germany is mobilizing its army and more than 60 million people in Italy are under lockdown in a bid to stem the spread of the disease. For weeks, social media, rolling news coverage and email inboxes have been saturated with updates, as global populations try to keep pace with a story which evolves by the hour.

Holly Thomas
A few people, however, have been totally unaware of the scale of the catastrophe until recent days.
They are the "Big Brother" housemates in Germany, Brazil and Canada, all of whom went into a news blackout when they entered their respective houses weeks ago. The CBS reality show sees more than a dozen strangers live in a house fitted up with cameras filming their every move for weeks, and broadcasting their most "dramatic" moments for the TV audience.
    The participants' ignorance in the face of the escalating crisis presents an ethical dilemma which heightens the already murky quandaries around reality television. The situation has amplified the vulnerabilities of the "Big Brother" housemates, who have, by the nature of the show, been unable to make a timely choice about how to respond to coronavirus.
    Normal "Big Brother" rules stipulate that participants are only informed of happenings in the outside world in the event of a family death or illness -- otherwise they are cut off from the world, without phone or internet access. Producers for the show have adhered to that rule even as coronavirus has closed borders and set the world in turmoil.
    But on Tuesday night, producers of the German show reversed their previous decision not to say anything, and told housemates to gather in the living room for a debrief from the presenter about the current state of the coronavirus in a live show.
    The housemates were sent reassuring video messages from smiling family members. They also had the opportunity to ask a doctor questions. All decided to stay in the house. In Canada, where the housemates were told the news over the weekend, off-camera via the PA system, the housemates made the same decision.
    There is some precedent for this kind of crisis management on Big Brother. In 2001, the final three contestants of "Big Brother 2" in the US were told about the September 11 attacks on the day. This exception to contestants' complete isolation from outside reality was made because one participant had a cousin who was missing, and the trio were only told the barest details. All decided to remain in the house, which did not have a TV or internet access. They didn't learn the full extent of the world-altering tragedy until September 20.
    Though a different news scenario, the circumstance then posed a similar problem to that of the coronavirus news. When an event is so gigantic and all-consuming, and updates come thick and fast, it is impossible to appreciate the full implications unless you are out in the world, seeing and experiencing it.
    Without being immersed in the same 24-hour news coverage, in constant contact with friends and relatives whose situations might change at any minute, how can the current "Big Brother" contestants truly make an informed decision about whether to stay in the house or leave?
    The answer is they can't. And while the contestants might have made the choice to leave and isolate with their families if they'd been aware of the gravity of the situation sooner, that is an option which could be swept away from them at any time. Nearly 3,000 new coronavirus cases were confirmed in Germany between Wednesday and Thursday, with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday evening calling Covid-19 the "greatest postwar challenge" the country has faced.
    Should a family member develop symptoms of Covid-19, a 'Big Brother' housemate will not be able to return to them once they leave the Big Brother house without risk of infection. With travel restrictions, health advice and the scale of the response evolving around the world day by day, there can be no guarantee that it will be possible for contestants to weather the rest of what might be a monthslong pandemic with their loved ones.
    While this is of course also the case for many others missing weddings, older relatives and having trouble returning to their home countries, in most cases the news of the developing situation will have been available to them. It is a measure of the inhumanity of the situation in the "Big Brother" house that it has been compared in news coverage to the dystopian 2008 British Drama "Dead Set," which depicted British Big Brother housemates blissfully unaware of a zombie apocalypse.
    One could argue that there are probably fewer places in the world safer than the Big Brother houses. They are effectively ready-made isolation centers. (Four new participants who entered the German "Big Brother" house on 9 March were assessed by a doctor, and declared symptom-free. However when they leave the house, the inmates will immediately have to adjust to a new way of life -- one completely at odds with what they've been used to for weeks.
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      Building new habits -- like constant hand-washing, not touching faces, keeping distant from people and sanitizing after touching anything outside, will take time. Having acclimatized to a "Big Brother" environment deliberately set up to maximize social mixing, sharing, and all interactions, this could prove jarring. Any lag in snapping into gear -- like thoughtlessly touching their mouths while traveling -- could put them in danger of infection, and hence in danger of infecting others.
      In this instance, the practical implications of the housemates being kept so long in the dark might outweigh even the moral wretchedness of the show's producers parlaying a global disaster into a TV stunt.