Managing risk has come to the forefront of our collective consciences with the advent of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. With a virus threatening the health of tens of thousands of people across the globe, governments and individuals are debating the best ways to manage risk.

This of course has led to disagreement in how communities are handling the spreading virus: Are we doing enough? Or are we doing too much? What level of risk are we willing to accept, and what level necessitates restrictions both minor and major? These debates can become acrimonious quickly, and this is because individuals have different levels of risk tolerance and different views on what activities are important to continue.

One thing that must be remembered is that every activity has risks—both to oneself and to others. If I walk out the door today, I could fall down and break my leg. If I drive somewhere, I could get in a wreck that kills me or kills someone else. If I go to the store, I could be unknowingly (or knowingly) carrying a virus that can spread to others. This has always been true, but some times and places and activities are riskier than others.

Many factors thus come into play when determining risk and whether an activity is worth the risk. Four major questions play into each person’s decision:

1) How much risk am I willing to take?

Some people are natural daredevils, while others are instinctively cautious. Every person is different, and what one person considers unnecessarily “risky” another might see as a fun time. This is also true of communities and governments. Some are quick to restrict freedoms in the name of safety, while others are loathe to do so.

2) At how much risk am I willing to place others?

As I’ve mentioned, we put others at risk all the time. That’s just the nature of our interconnected lives. But some people are more cognizant of this fact than others. The person who drives 100+ mph on the highway to get a thrill doesn’t really care about the risk others incur from his recklessness. A narcissist would have almost no care about risking others for his own sake, while on the other extreme is the person paralyzed by the fear of harming someone. Most of us, however, try to minimize the risk to others and are thus willing to place ourselves under reasonable restrictions, like traffic laws.

3) How risky is the activity, to myself and to others?

How much risk one is willing to accept for himself and for others is usually a product of one’s personality, upbringing, culture, and peers. But no matter how much risk we’re willing to face, we all constantly gauge how risky a specific activity is, to both ourselves and to others. And because humans don’t have perfect knowledge, these judgements are never perfect; a risk-averse person might incorrectly judge a risky activity as safe and do it.

4) How essential is the activity?

A final factor is how essential we deem an activity. Even the most risk-averse person will likely undertake an incredibly risky activity if he deems it necessary for survival. But a risk-taker might avoid a slightly risky action if it’s of no importance to him.

Thus, we all subconsciously create a scale of our risk tolerance and a scale of the importance of each activity. We then decide if an activity tips the scale, making it unnecessarily risky to perform, or safe and essential enough to do.   

Risk Analysis and Coronavirus

Let’s now apply this analysis to the current Coronavirus situation. With many countries restricting various activities and services—and some under almost total lock-down—each person and each country is reevaluating the risk of activities previously considered safe and innocuous, such as eating at a restaurant or attending a religious service.

In most “normal” situations of life (and the current Coronavirus situation is anything but normal), the first question—How much risk am I willing to take?—usually takes precedence. But it’s the second question—At how much risk am I willing to place others?—that becomes paramount today. We have a situation in which our own bodies, perhaps unbeknownst to us, could be carriers of a virus that’s potentially deadly to some people. Although the death rate for those with Coronavirus is minuscule for most categories of people, it can be deadly for certain segments of the population. For example, the death rate for those over 80 years old who get the virus is almost 15%. So we must ask ourselves how much we are willing to risk others’ lives to do the things we wish to do.

However, before we all agree to be completely locked down for the sake of the vulnerable, we should again remember that we always engage in activities that can endanger others, especially the vulnerable (after all, that’s why they’re considered “vulnerable” in the first place—they are always at greater risk than most of us). Driving to the store could involve getting in a fatal car wreck. Going to the doctor with the flu could be fatal to another patient who’s immunocompromised. So it’s not a matter of never risking the lives of others, but how much we are willing to risk them, and for what.

Returning to applying risk assessment to Coronavirus, it’s the third question—How risky is the activity, to myself and to others?—that’s the trickiest to answer. After all, the vast majority of us have no medical background, and even among those who do, there are many unknowns regarding this new virus. So we have to determine the risks by evaluating medical, governmental, media, and other sources of information. People of good will can do this and come to very different conclusions: some might believe that the Coronavirus is no more than a really bad flu, and others might see it as a modern-day plague that will ravage our population. The conclusions we come to will dramatically impact what restrictions we are willing, or not willing, to accept.

Finally, we ask ourselves how essential each activity is. For most people, going down to our local bar for a few drinks isn’t as essential as going to the grocery store to pick up necessary supplies. But again, every individual will answer this question in his or her own way. For some people, going to religious services is absolutely essential, whereas for others, it’s a non-factor. Being out and about is incredibly important for certain personalities, yet others have no problem being at home for long periods of time. Some see helping those in need as essential, while others might subscribe to more of a “survival of the fittest” mentality. What is “essential” is often in the eye of the beholder.

Patience and Understanding

What we should realize is that how we react to the various restrictions being put into place in response to the Coronavirus pandemic is a multi-faceted reality. Someone who thinks we should be allowed into restaurants isn’t necessarily a narcissist; and the person who thinks we should lock down every aspect of life isn’t necessarily a caring saint. Knowing this, we should engage in the cultural debate about what is the proper response to this virus with understanding and compassion. We shouldn’t look at those who disagree with us as monsters or tyrants, but instead realize that we are all doing our best to adapt to a new and often frightening situation.