How to Live With Risk in the COVID-19 World

19 August 2020. Updated 20 August 2020.

by Brian Gedalla

We assess risks every day of our lives. We learn to do this as very small children and long before we reach adulthood we carry out most of the assessments completely subconsciously.

COVID-19 is forcing us to assess the risks associated with the virus in our conscious minds and we are not very good at it.

Thinking about the process we must all go through, I have concluded that what we are doing is trying to assess and juggle with three different numbers in our heads, without ever assigning an actual number to any of them. My simplistic model works like this:

  1. We assign a ‘Utility Value’ to an activity we are either doing, or would like to do. This is our subjective measure of the value and importance to us of that activity and will take into account our perception of the negative aspects of the risk we propose to take.
  2. The Utility Value drives us to arrive at an ‘Acceptable Risk Ceiling’ – the highest level of risk we are prepared to accept if we are to engage in the activity. It follows that the Acceptable Risk Ceiling is different for each activity in our lives and will be different for every person. There are no absolutes in assessing personal risk.
  3. We assess the Actual Risk (from COVID-19 or any other peril) arising out of the specific activity. It goes without saying that from our personal perspective, the Actual Risk is the same whatever our assessment of the Acceptable Risk Ceiling is. Theoretically, it also ought to be same for all people, although in practice no two people are likely to agree what that level of Actual Risk is. What is clear is that the Actual Risk varies according to the activity being proposed.
  4. We then compare the Acceptable Risk Ceiling with Actual Risk, and if the Acceptable Risk Ceiling is above the Actual Risk, we should be happy to continue with the activity and if the Acceptable Risk Ceiling is below the Actual Risk, that should set off the mental alarm bells telling us we are taking what for us is an unacceptable risk.

Does that sound too dry? I thought so!

Let me give you two examples:

  1. My wife likes to do her shopping in person at the supermarket. She mistrusts on-line ordering, particularly with regard to fresh produce. Accordingly, she assigns a high Utility Value to the activity of supermarket shopping which drives her to assign a high Acceptable Risk Ceiling to the activity. Conversely, she derives only marginal enjoyment from eating out and so she assigns a relatively low Utility Value, thus driving a low Acceptable Risk Ceiling to that activity. In truth the Actual Risk of both supermarket shopping and eating in a restaurant are probably not very different, but Mrs G’s assessments put her personal Acceptable Risk Ceiling for shopping above the Actual Risk and for eating out below it. This results in her deciding to ‘risk’ going to the shop but refusing all my offers of a night out. Sorry Rishi!
  2. I am one of those strange individuals for whom attending synagogue services twice daily is an integral part of my life. Or was until the pandemic led to the closure of all places of worship. Of all of the indignities of lockdown, the loss of my daily communal devotions was one of the hardest to accept. So I was eagerly awaiting the restoration of communal prayer at the beginning of July and was among the first in my community to sign up to be part of the heavily restricted numbers permitted back. In the language of my risk model, I set a very high Utility Value on going back, driving an almost ‘at all costs’ Acceptable Risk Ceiling. I was almost not interested in the Actual Risk at all: whatever it was, my Acceptable Risk Ceiling was above it and I was going to services! But as the weeks have passed, the strictures imposed by the Government guidelines for reopening places of worship have begun to eat away at my enthusiasm. The room we are allowed to pray in has been converted into a cross between a crime scene, complete with yards of black/yellow hazard tape, and a hospital waiting room, sanitised so that all of the warmth normally associated with a place of worship has been sucked out. We are obliged to bring our own prayer books and anybody handling Holy objects has to wear disposable gloves. Masks were obligatory, now by Government diktat. The whole experience, rather than being spiritually uplifting, was actually the reverse. I came to the sad conclusion that my Utility Value was falling fast and with it, my Acceptable Risk Ceiling. I now cared about the Actual Risk and clearly my Acceptable Risk Ceiling was below the Actual Risk. I stopped going.

My opening comment was that for most activities we learn this Utility Value/Acceptable Risk Ceiling/Actual Risk assessment process as very small children and consign it to our subconscious minds. Every time we go to cross a road we carry out the same assessment process. How much of a hurry am I in (Utility Value)? Am I prepared to run across the traffic or should I spend a bit longer on the kerb so that I can walk across more slowly (Acceptable Risk Ceiling)? How far away is that bus and am I sure the driver will see me and slow down to let me cross (Actual Risk)? My subconscious adult mind will only let me cross if it assesses the Acceptable Risk Ceiling as being above the Actual Risk. As an aside, that is why alcohol is so dangerous. We say that alcohol relaxes our inhibitions, but what it actually does is that it allows our brains to inflate the Acceptable Risk Ceiling while reducing our perceptions of the Actual Risk, leading us in a drunken haze to make bad decisions that we otherwise wouldn’t.

It’s not even true to say that we never as adults consciously make these risk assessments. Many people are terrified of flying. They set a personal perception of the Actual Risk associated with commercial jet flight way above any objective assessment of the risk. But if faced by a ‘need’ (a family member far away, perhaps, in a place only realistically accessible by air) this can lead the nervous flier to set their assessment of Utility Value and therefore their Acceptable Risk Ceiling at a literally sky-high level thus allowing them to get on the plane. Sadly, of course, that is not universally true and some people will never get their Acceptable Risk Ceiling high enough to overcome their exaggerated view of the Actual Risk.

In the early stages of lockdown, the UK Government was incredibly successful in engendering an almost palpable fear in much of the population of the consequences of being exposed to the risk of COVID-19. Attempts since to coax significant proportions of the populace back into any semblance of normal living are failing miserably. All too often we hear people saying that they will only emerge “when it is 100% safe”. Thus they are saying that for all activities, their Acceptable Risk Ceiling will effectively be zero so that until the Actual Risk falls to zero they can’t return. That is clearly not a sustainable viewpoint – somehow, we all have to realise that there is risk in everything we do and we have to assign acceptable levels of it to a range of our activities.

Life must begin again, and that means accepting risks in the way we have always done in all aspects of our lives.

Brian Gedalla is a chartered statistician who worked as a general insurance actuary for over 30 years. He retired in 2017.

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