Risk and Uncertainty

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March 3, 2020 4:42 p.m.

As David noted below, we’re in touch with several readers who live near the assisted living facility which appears to be the main epicenter of the outbreak in Washington state. One reader has generally high marks for local authorities, others more skeptical reports. All are concerned about the schools, both for the welfare of children and as a potential vector for the spread of the disease. People find themselves having ambiguous symptoms that might be signs of the virus but could just as easily be the kinds of mild colds we generally ignore every winter. The one common refrain is the lack of information and unclarity about just what you’re supposed to do.

One reader tells us of being told both to avoid contact with others and to go about your normal routine. Obviously these are at least partly contradictory messages, though one can certainly see the logic of each independently from local officials. The big thing is the lack of tests. People simply don’t know whether there are a small number of infections in their community – a few dozens or hundreds – or whether it is already widespread. What you would do in each case is pretty different. People are experiencing symptoms and not knowing where they are on a spectrum from infection (with COVID-19) to common colds to paranoia.

The critical driver here is the lack of testing and the lack of knowledge. But the reality is that public officials pretty clearly don’t know either. Everyone is to significant degree in the dark. And that is not a comfortable feeling.

It is clear that in addition to all the sensible precautions and preparations everyone needs to be prepare themselves for uncertainty. We think in binary terms about calm and panic, various levels of panic. But for most of us we’re simply not going to know precisely what’s happening. And at least in the short term, we’ll be in communities where the potential spread of the virus in areas we live simply isn’t known. Some of us handle risk and uncertainty better than others. But it is a stress for everyone. We need to prepare ourselves for more of it.

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