Covid Risk

Something I wrote about Covid awhile back that might still be relevant as we crawl towards vaccination:

I’ve been talking to people about Covid recently and there’s a common theme: people don’t know if they’re worrying too much or not enough, but there is this constant nagging fear that they aren’t worrying the right amount. A few friends have told me they feel like they’re doing too much AND too little at the same time. Which I get! On the one hand, I don’t really know anyone who’s had Covid. It’s an abstract threat like nothing I’ve ever had to deal with. On the other hand we ground our entire society to a halt for it, so maybe I should freak out a little more?

Originally, they told us there was something like a 2% death rate from Covid. This is largely because of higher fatalities for older folks, and seemed a little alarmist. But there are also some outcomes we didn’t discuss at the start of the pandemic, like “permanent lung damage” that I’d also like to avoid. I’m having trouble finding the exact numbers for this, but let’s say that if I get Covid there’s a .1% chance of something really bad happening.

When I think about .1%, I imagine that I’m sitting at a table (for whatever reason it’s always one of those green casino tables) while I roll three ten sided dice. The .1% thing happens to me if they all come up a 1. This visualization is important to me because as someone who has rolled a lot of dice in my life I sort of have an emotional sense of how likely the outcome is. I know that I could roll these dice hundreds of times and not have three ones crop up at the same time. But I also know that it can happen. I’ve seen it happen before. Then I think, “If someone said they were going to kill me if three ones came up, how much would someone have to pay me to roll these dice?”

This whole chain of visualizations is important to me because it grounds something pretty abstract (a probability) in a situation I can understand and then puts a price on it I can translate into everyday life. I value my life a lot. You would have to pay me a heck-ton of money to roll those dice if there was a one in a thousand chance of it killing me. So I guess I should probably avoid getting Covid. How you feel about this visualization is up to you! There’s no right amount of risk you think is acceptable. The only important thing to keep in mind when deciding is that if you give the virus to your friends or family they’re rolling too, and if it’s an older relative, they’re only rolling a pair.

What activities should you avoid if you don’t want Covid? That’s when stuff gets way murkier and human brains start to check out. Whether or not you’ll get the virus depends on how many people around you have it, how often you do the activity, and how likely the virus is to get transmitted during the activity. Trying to think about all those factors at once is overwhelming, and for a lot of people seems to lead to periods of paranoia punctuated by exhausted relaxation.

One thing that might help is something called the micro-covid project. It’s a website that helps you budget risk. You specify how much risk of contracting the disease you’re willing to accept (the default is one percent, which lets you roll five dice vs death, which seems about right to me), and the website tells you how much of your risk budget an activity uses. A grocery store trip in your area might use up a quarter of your risk allocation for a week. A hangout with a friend might use up half. I briefly considered going to a wedding recently, only to find out just attending the wedding used up my entire risk budget…for the next five years. So I gave that one a skip. I don’t think anyone is going to use micro-covid to plan their life week by week, but I think it’s a great way to get an idea of how dangerous different activities are.

Even with my dice visualization, I can’t keep up being afraid indefinitely. This is good, in that I’m not going insane, but bad in that there are actually still reasons to be afraid. So my suggestion is this: Once you have an idea of which activities are more and less dangerous, sit down and figure out what the strongest restrictions to which you can realistically adhere while focusing on being afraid. Write them down and then stop worrying. Having rules you’ve committed to means the decision making is all in the past. You won’t need to second guess yourself, or try and recapture that fear. You’ll be able to trust that you’ve fully thought about your risk and that you’re doing exactly enough.

One thought on “Covid Risk

  1. The hard part is how to factor in the old risks we’ve grown used to with the new risk of COVID. People who have lived any length of time in California will go through an earthquake, and depending on the severity, may end up with PTSD, or a number of other amygdala-driven coping mechanisms.

    I personally found I could not bring myself to drive under an overpass for rather a few years after going through the Sierra Madre quake epicentered a mile from our home. You just can’t know when the next one will strike.

    We now live in a place where West Nile flares up every summer, where the mosquitoes carry a potentially lethal does of it, and the ticks carry another type of virus that can disable a person for the rest of their life. They are literally everywhere. Just going out to get my mail puts me at risk. Every summer.

    There will come a point when we will all have to live with yet another virus that may kill us, that lives everywhere,

    I have heard people talk about California Denial, just moving on with life knowing that at any moment the Big One may just come, and most of the state will be plunged into the sea. I wonder if we will learn to cope with this corona virus in a similar way. COVID denial.

    Liked by 1 person

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