The coronavirus is forcing us to measure the risks involved in resuming our lives.
Can we get out of the house? Go back to work? Go to a restaurant or a bar? To the beach? Is it time for our children to go back to school? Can we visit grandma?
The questions are endless. And the answers are not the product of a mathematical calculation or scientific considerations, but rather the consequence of an analysis of changing elements, with a strong emotional background, about the relationship between cost and benefit.
We know what the dangers were before the pandemic. The chances of being struck by lightning are one in 180,000, at least in the United States. Of dying of a heart problem, one in six. In one storm, one in 54,699, according to the National Security Council.
There is no comparable information on the coronavirus, and as movement restrictions begin to be lifted and we are bombarded with numbers of infections and deaths, people wonder: is it worth exposing yourself one way or the other?
What is the value of life, especially compared to the damages caused by the stoppage of activities? New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo says confinements are warranted even if a single life is saved. Proponents of reviving the economy, however, say that the consequences of prolonging the stoppage of activities may be worse than the impact of the virus, a notion promoted by Donald Trump.
Risk analysis is nothing new, especially with insurers. But they generally start from the premise that that risk will affect a few.
Coronavirus is something totally different. It has affected more than 180 countries, infected more than 5 million people and caused at least 320,000 deaths.
It is difficult to calculate the risks of a return to normality. A farmer does not know if he will be able to sell his harvest.
However, there are several ways to assess hazards. Engineers analyze the resistance of a bridge to decide if it can be crossed. Investors are betting that stock prices will go up, knowing that they can go down as well. Harry Markowitz, a renowned Nobel laureate in economics, is credited with saying that it is not wise to put all your eggs in one basket.
Accepting certain levels of risk, even when life is at stake, has led to great strides and tremendous achievements.
In his book “Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk”, Peter L. Bernstein wrote: “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundaries between modern times and the past is control of risks: The notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women do not remain passive before nature ”.
“Until man discovered how to overcome that pitfall,” he wrote, “the future was a reflection of the past in the murky world of oracles and soothsayers, who had a monopoly on the knowledge of accepted events.”
It is one thing to analyze whether a man can fly, explore a border, quit his job to fulfill a dream. But it is a very different thing to accept the idea of significantly increasing the chances of contracting a disease that can be fatal for you, your family and your neighbors.
There are those who say that until now we have considered only part of the subject, the benefit of social distancing, ignoring the economic, emotional and social cost.
“I am increasingly concerned that we are taking a very strong medicine, that of social distancing, without proper analysis of the reactions it can cause,” said Zach Finn, professor of risk management at Butler University in Indianapolis.
“I associate social distancing with chemotherapy,” he said. “I am happy for the professionals who developed both concepts. However, we do not say that chemotherapy, or any medicine, is a panacea without risks and / or side effects. While it does destroy cancer, it is known to destroy healthy cells as well. “
A patient, he added, weighs the risks and benefits.
Now we are all patient. No one questions that economic devastation can have profound medical and social consequences, including death. No one doubts that these consequences cannot be reversed quickly.
In that context, are we willing to take the risk?