Think Of Risk As A Spectrum

Think Of Risk As A Spectrum
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As rules relax, we must ask ourselves some strange questions: Is it safe to see a friend? Go to the park? Eat in a restaurant? No matter how many experts you ask, there’s not going to be a clear yes-or-no answer.

Some things pose a greater risk than others, and we have to get used to that idea rather than look for a hard and fast rules on what will keep us safe. Strict rules are handy when there are specific actions that can easily and effectively counter risk: get a vaccine, wear a seatbelt, don’t leave a campfire unattended.

But there’s no simple equivalent for our current problem, which is avoiding getting sick with COVID-19 and trying not to be a stepping stone for the virus to spread from one person to another. If you can’t abide by strict stay-at-home rules (which were only ever supposed to be a short term fix, and are certainly not an easy way to live one’s whole life), it’s time to start thinking of risk as a spectrum.

We know that spending time with other people is riskier than hanging out alone. Extended, close contact is riskier than passing somebody on the street. Sitting 1.5 metres away from someone indoors is probably riskier than standing 1.5 metres away from them in the open air.

Graphic: Julia Marcus and Ellie Murray

And so we can build spectra like the one above, from epidemiologists Julia Marcus and Ellie Murray. Staying at home is safer than taking a walk with others, which in turn is safer than a picnic, which in turn is safer than an indoor party. And wherever you are on that spectrum, there are ways to reduce your risk further: keep your distance, invite fewer people and avoid sharing utensils or toys.

With this knowledge, you can make informed decisions to keep your risk low. Personally, I wouldn’t go to a pre-pandemic style party right now, but I did host a birthday gathering last week. There were only two people there from another household. We met outdoors and stayed more than 1.5 metres away from each other the whole time (they were in the driveway, we were on the deck).

Does the spectrum give us perfect protection? No. But thinking of risk in this way is an important tool to try to avoid “quarantine fatigue.” If we try to keep too-strict rules, many of us will ultimately get frustrated, break them, and figure we’ve already failed so we might as well stop trying. Don’t do that. Instead, let’s make decisions with a continuum as our guide.

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