Shaunna Burke Ph.D.

Move to Improve

6 Ways to Stay Safe as Lockdown Eases

How to manage risks we cannot easily evaluate.

Posted May 29, 2020

Katie E/Pexels
Source: Katie E/Pexels

Risk is inevitable in everything that we do. It is an inherent part of our lives, intertwined with every decision we make and action we take. Ordinary acts such as walking across the road or driving a vehicle involve risk. Yet, our usual safeguards make adverse consequences so rare that we seldom think about the risks involved in everyday activities. We have become accustomed to managing everyday risk, often instinctively.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are having to contend with everyday risks we cannot easily evaluate. A previously straightforward decision of whether to leave the house or use public transport is now fraught with unknown peril. More than ever before, we are having to calculate simple everyday decisions to try and determine what is safe and what should be avoided. The threat of the virus looms over every choice we make.

Studies on the psychology of risk have shown that we intuitively respond with higher levels of anxiety in the face of unknown risks rather than familiar risks. This heightened anxiety is likely explained by the fact that we have an innate need to live in a predictable, orderly world that is in our control. Not adequately understanding a new risk—such as COVID-19—makes it difficult for us to take precautionary measures to reduce risk, thereby resulting in a perceived lack of control over our lives.  

There is a lot about COVID-19 that we still don’t understand. Researchers continue to seek answers to questions such as: "Is a person immune after being infected?" "Do face masks prevent the spread of infection?" "Why do some young and healthy people die from COVID-19, while the majority have only mild symptoms or none at all?"

In the face of all this uncertainty, we are having to weigh some risks on our own. When countries had strict stay-at-home rules in place, daily decisions about the risk of contracting the virus were simple. Now, as governments relax restrictions and countries reopen parts of their economies, decisions are more complex. The government may allow schools to reopen—but should we allow our children to go? Is it safe to get a haircut or go to the gym?

There is always going to be some risk of contracting the virus as we go about our day-to-day lives. Personal protective measures including social distancing, avoiding touching our faces, and hand hygiene can reduce the risk of contracting the virus, but don’t eliminate risk completely.

Here are a few important points to consider when managing risk outside the home:

1. Self-assessment

Start by conducting a self-assessment to determine if you are at higher risk for severe COVID-19. Based on currently available information and clinical expertise, older adults and people of any age who have pre-existing medical conditions are at higher risk. Other risk factors associated with COVID-19 death may include being male, uncontrolled diabetes, severe asthma, and being of Asian or Black ethnic origin.

2. Risk level

Consider the level of risk associated with different activities—some activities are riskier than others. For example, gatherings of large groups of people in an indoor environment are considered high risk whereas exercising outdoors alone is relatively low risk. Key risk factors that make some activities more dangerous than others include distance to other people, type of activity, indoor/outdoor environment, and time spent in close proximity to others.

3. Tolerance

Evaluate your own risk attitude and tolerance for uncertainty. We all have our own fixed level of acceptable risk. It is important to reflect on the level of uncertainty you are willing to take on when you contemplate doing activities outside your home. How much risk are you willing to take? Which types of risk worry you the most?

4. Significance

Evaluate the importance of what it is you want to do and your ability to take protective measures. In certain instances—say, if you want to visit a family member—you may feel strongly that you should go. Other activities may be discretionary.

5. Impact

Consider how stressful a situation will be. For example, airplanes, trains, and buses are confined spaces. Someone near you could start coughing—which could make you anxious. It is important that you are prepared for the stress of a situation that might not be fully in your control. Think of problems that may arise and how you would handle them.

6. Support

Speak with a trusted friend. We often make errors when assessing risk. Talking through options with someone you trust can help keep risk in perspective so we don’t overestimate or underestimate risk.  

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Life is risky and no outcome is ever 100 percent certain. We all must contend with this fact, charting the safest path we can through this pandemic that enables us to do and achieve what we want. We can’t avoid risk, but we can make sure risks are calculated.