The Rational Risk Assessment System I Needed For Coronavirus Decision-Making

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
This Is The Rational Risk Assessment System I Needed for Coronavirus Decisions

“What will be different this summer?”

The question came from a friend when I said I wasn’t comfortable with a socially-distanced visit in March.

My response, then, had been that logically nothing will be different, but it will feel different. Asked the same question now, I would agree to a social distance visit. Because it feels different.

Maybe because we’re beginning to understand more about how this virus transmits, and therefore know how to better mitigate risk — though there are still a number of unknowns. Maybe because coronavirus infections were high, but are currently low in my area (though not gone) and the rate of infection has slowed (but not vanished) and a controlled risk is easier to take. Or maybe because the tone of emails flooding my inbox has shifted from the early March, “here’s how our company is responding to COVID-19” to “here’s our company reopening plan.”

Or, I suspect most likely, because despite the early promise of a number of vaccine trials, I’m beginning to come to terms with the truth that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon. It’s a hard truth to swallow, but one more and more of us are forced to come to terms with as states begin to open, and we have to determine what “living” means for us as individuals and as a society, what level of risk we’re comfortable accepting, and what level of risk we feel capable of mitigating.

Which means, for many, more and more often, we will be faced with choices: If camps open, should we send our kids? What if schools open? Can we trust our kids on a social distance bike ride with the neighbor? Can we bring in a babysitter for a few hours a week?

As a solo parent absolutely drowning under the weight of working from home, homeschooling, and caring for two quarantine-fatigued children, I’ve been struggling with these decisions, for my family and for myself, and also completely inconsistent in my decision-making. One moment, a family hike with the grandparents, six feet apart and all wearing masks feels safe, and the next, the social distance play date—two kids drawing with chalk on the driveway—feels impossibly dangerous. Every decision feels like life or death; or if I’m feeling dramatic, every decision feels like a choice between living and living.

Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University and parent, wrote a post for her newsletter, ParentData, describing how to create a risk assessment system for coronavirus decisions. And this is the rational risk assessment system I’ve been needing.

As a professor of economics, Oster’s framework requires, at heart, a risk-benefit analysis, and there won’t be a one-size-fits-all answer to any question.

Peter Cade/Getty

The five-step framework she created looks like this: (1) frame the question, (2) mitigate risk, (3) evaluate risk, (4) evaluate benefits, and finally, (5) decide.

Framing the question is arguably the most difficult part of her system. She writes, “[Y]ou must start by figuring out what, precisely, you are considering doing and, just as important, asking what is the alternative?”

In her example, she asks the question: “Should my kid return to day care when it opens next week?”

The answer depends on whether the alternative is to send your kid in a month, in September, or not again until there’s a vaccine. It’s easier to make a choice if you’re choosing between two or three possibilities, and not every potential probability. Framing the question this way can also help you determine whether any holes exist in your thinking—as in: what’s actually going to change between now and a month from now. In some cases, framing the question in terms of alternatives might result in the answer you’re seeking, and there won’t be a need to go on to steps two through four.

But, assuming you’ve framed your question, and still aren’t sure, Oster recommends then thinking about mitigating risk: what’s the safest way to do the thing you are considering doing? We know more about COVID-19 transmission than we did in March. We know masks are important. We know outdoor risk is less than indoor. All the information we know, so far, should be considered.

And then the risk, for each person involved, needs to be evaluated. The formula she recommends is: “Chance Someone Infected x Chance of Spread x Chance of serious illness or death.” The formula isn’t perfect. It relies on general statistics, and we know that seemingly healthy, low risk individuals can get devastatingly ill, while high risk individuals remain asymptomatic. There is a sense of playing the odds, which is scary when the odds are related to life and death.

That’s when weighing that risk, and acknowledging your risk tolerance, against the benefits becomes necessary. If the risk is relatively low, and the benefit is high, the decision might be easier to make.

The truth is that we’re going to be living with this virus for a while, and this virus is terrifying. As of this writing, COVID-19 has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the United States alone. Some of those who have recovered are suffering weeks and months later, and new risks seem to emerge all the time — such as MIS-C, the COVID-related inflammatory disease impacting children. But the truth is, also, we’re going to be living with this virus for a while, and living with strict quarantine rules, as a solo parent, for me, isn’t sustainable. I need to take a little risk for the unquantifiable benefit of finding a way to relieve some of this weight I’ve been carrying alone since early March.

I recognize that for some people, the risk-benefit analysis will always be that the risk is too high, the benefits insignificant when weighed against that very real risk. I recognize there’s so much privilege involved in being in a position in which I can choose to take a risk or not: for example, because my work allows me the flexibility to homeschool. And I recognize that utilizing this risk assessment system feels personal, but ultimately each of our individual decisions is a crucial factor in our societal response to this virus—which is an idea that also cannot be overlooked. We’re not acting in a vacuum, and that needs to be considered in every individual decision.

There’s so much we don’t know about this virus. Information is changing every day; our knowledge is evolving every week. The risk assessment one day might look different the next. My decisions might continue to be inconsistent as the risk-benefit analysis adapts to new developments. But, for now, having some concrete way to structure my thoughts is what I needed to plan my tomorrow.

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