Choices in a Time of Viral Disease
Some guiding principles.
Posted Mar 15, 2020
The most recent coronavirus disease, COVID-19, is currently at the forefront of many people’s lives. The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and local health authorities have been sharing valuable information on how best to protect yourself, your family, and the broader population. This is a time of many important decisions at multiple levels, and we can help ourselves and others by keeping some general principles in mind.
- Seek relevant information from reputable sources. These may be different from your favorite news or social media source or personality. These may even be different from those in general positions of authority. As this is first and foremost a health issue, turn to respected and evidence-based health authorities, practitioners, and scientists. Favor those who have a mission and track record of working to protect the public, independent of other influences (economic, political, and more). The WHO and CDC, along with state and local health agencies, are likely some of your best resources in terms of being accurate and up-to-date; consider, too, reputable independent investigative journalism efforts such as ProPublica. To the extent possible, seek direct communications from those sources, rather than second- or third-hand accounts—the message can become distorted with each re-telling. And be especially skeptical of sources that are seeking to promote or sell a product or otherwise profit from the message they are conveying.
- Learn from the experiences of others. Individuals and governments of cities, states, provinces, and countries where cases of COVID-19 have only recently emerged can benefit from the varied experiences, approaches, and consequences of places that saw the earliest cases, such as China, South Korea, and Italy. To think that a given community or country is exceptional and uniquely able to withstand the biological, psychological, and behavioral patterns seen in other communities and locations is in most if not all cases wishful thinking.
Those communities fortunate enough to have the benefit of a later onset of COVID-19 should seek out and capitalize on the valuable information and range of example actions and consequences available to chart their course, remembering that on a broad scale the virus, the human body, and human thinking and behavior operate on largely similar principles across locations and cultures. In general, people do not like uncertainty and it can lead to less than ideal decisions and actions. Scenario planning is helpful, yet it depends in many ways on what one is able to imagine. There is less uncertainty and less to imagine here than we might think.
- Aim to be realistic about risk. Evidence-based risk assessments can be very useful in guiding effective decisions and actions. Drastically underestimating risk can lead to inaction whose effects can be tremendous—e.g., many public health experts have provided evidence and models that a difference of even one day in taking appropriate action can have large effects—as can overestimating risk—e.g., while stocking some supplies may be reasonable, it can escalate to extreme levels of hoarding. While such over-stocking can help to provide some sense of control, it can also deny necessities to others and put excessive pressure on suppliers and their personnel; this includes sanitizing and other supplies needed by the very hospitals, doctors, and nurses on the front lines of treatment. Efforts toward realistic risk assessment—and here's where reputable information sources are key—is one step in guiding effective decisions, including helping to ensure that resources are distributed sensibly.
- Consider everyone. Even though you and your family may be at relatively low risk based on your age and lack of pre-existing conditions, you may infect others who are at much higher risk. Limit your interactions with others not only for your sake but for theirs. Take that larger humanitarian responsibility seriously. Think, too, about other ways in which you might help those at higher risk or with fewer resources, being sure to consider the range of resources that people may need and want. Funds, transportation, delivery of groceries or medication, access to reliable and accurate information, and/or someone to talk to are only some of the ways in which you might be able to help others.
- Seek balance. It can seem that no matter where you turn you are confronted with the coronavirus and COVID-19, whether it’s the topic of conversation on the news and social media or its impacts are being felt in aspects of daily life such as grocery store lines and school closings. Aim to take action in ways that you can (e.g., via the CDC and WHO recommendations for social distancing), and also seek some windows of both normalcy and joy where you can. Maintaining some previous routines and/or establishing new ones can be helpful, as can finding the positives (e.g., more family meals, perhaps?), and helping others in the ways that we can.
Social distancing is a key emergent recommendation of the above principles. In most cases, it’s the best decision both individually and societally. At the same time, it does not have to be our only form of individual and collective action in this challenging time. Let’s think creatively about what is possible.