When the COVID-19 pandemic started, most of us did everything we could to lower our risk of getting infected. We locked ourselves in our homes. We limited our contact with other people. We became obsessive about hygiene, wearing surgical masks, and washing our hands with the frequency and vigor of a first-year medical resident. What made it palatable, in large part, was the feeling that it was only temporary. We’d lock down, and then after a few weeks, or a couple of months at the most, things would reopen and we could get back to normal.
That, as we all know, hasn’t happened. The virus operates on its own schedule. Without a vaccine, it is now clear, we’ll be living with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future; even the most optimistic estimates for a vaccine are early 2021. So the question now is: How do we operate in a world where even the most mundane decisions — whether to meet a friend for a drink, say, or to pop into the corner grocery for a pint of Hӓagen-Dazs — can feel like matters of life or death?
I’m an economist, a discipline in which we are endlessly analyzing how risk and uncertainty factor into everyday life. How do people approach the stock market in times of economic crisis? What motivates someone to wear a seat belt, or take a dangerous job, or skip the insurance option when renting a car? Economists look at data on these behaviors to try to figure out what “value” people implicitly put on their lives.
Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, we face an unprecedented level of risk and uncertainty in our daily lives — with very little reliable information to guide us. Our political leaders have been at best inconsistent, and at worst flat-out wrong, when it comes to communicating how to protect ourselves and each other.
As is often the case, small things can make a huge difference. Just as you wouldn’t drive your car without your seat belt or go skydiving without a parachute, you should wash your hands and wear a mask whenever you go out. But even if we take such precautions, we face some risk of COVID-19 every time we leave our homes. The question to ask is: How large is that risk, and is it worth it? To help make sense of all the confusing and often contradictory advice, I consulted more than a dozen doctors and scientists and tried to sort out the most logical, rational, simple advice science could offer to just about every question imaginable. Keep reading