Covid-19: re-learning risk tolerance

We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Does FDR’s famous Depression Era pep talk apply to our present situation? Well not entirely of course. We have the virus itself to fear. The curve may have peaked in some places, but the numbers of cases and of deaths are still rising. It still feels like a dangerous world out there.

It would be more accurate to say that we have to fear both the virus and fear itself. Not quite as upbeat as the original. A key variable in the return to normal life in coming days and months, perhaps years, will be relearning our normal risk tolerance.

States ease lockdown” go the headlines of stories about the restarting of the economy, now at Depression Era levels of unemployment and other misery. But there are two parts to “re-opening”. First, the authorities–governors and others–deciding that (with special conditions, such as physical distancing and face masks) it’s ok to go back to restaurants, hair salons, etc.

The second part to reopening is consumers deciding whether or not, after weeks of distancing, having, most of us, developed a habit of extreme wariness, to trust such advisories?

Millions of us, doing our best to slow the spread of this unknown and frightening infection, have become very serious in our practice of distancing. And ”what we are doing is working,” announced Dr. Fauci almost a month ago, as he lowered his estimate of the likely death toll of the virus dramatically to 60,000, that of a bad, but not unprecedented, flu season, way down from the 100-200 thousand he had been estimating only a few days before that. (And a fraction of the 2.4 million being estimated in the first week or two of the shutdown )

But the extreme wariness that has worked in flattening the curve, may be problematic in the next stage of getting back to normal. Some of us have, even as some decision makers begin to see light at the end of the tunnel, become even more fastidious.

A big issue of the moment is the late-in-the-game emphasis on masks. In the first two to three weeks of the stay home regimen experts said that masks were not needed except for health workers, or if you have some reason to fear you will infect others; or perhaps in a store where distancing may not be possible.

But recently more people have begun wearing masks outdoors, while distancing, which seems redundant. People report getting dirty looks outdoors for not being masked. Letters to newspapers are shaming those who don’t wear them whenever out of the house. Since there seems no evidence that the redundancy of a mask while distancing outdoors actually makes us appreciably safer, masks now seem to serve more as a badge of moral superiority than anything else.

When it comes to distancing, six feet has been the gold standard, but my sister says that she no longer walks with friends because they’ve heard 20-some feet is the really effective distance, putting them too far apart to converse.

The best we can hope for in the future of this virus is reduced, “acceptable” risk. Even when (and if) we come up with a vaccine, it is likely to be as imperfect as each year’s new flu vaccine, providing well less than perfect immunity ( flu-as-usual kills an average of around 40,000 people in a season and hospitalizes over 200,000). When we go to a restaurant or to get a haircut, there will be a certain amount of risk.

This reduced risk will become “acceptable” when we accept it.

Right now it’s hard for many of us to imagine once more subjecting ourselves to the intimacy of getting our hair cut or teeth cleaned, let along returning with pleasure to restaurants. Our imaginations will be emboldened in time with reliable testing, “herd immunity,” and a vaccine, when and if. But to do our part in re-opening the economy consumers will somehow need to return to the useful, perhaps necessary, practice of numbness to the risks of living which will henceforth include, along with flu and driving and eating unhealthfully, covid-19.

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