Whose Risk Assessment?

Bad joke from the old “famous last words” series: “Hey guys! Watch this!” It is said that in normal circumstance, half of emergency room visits happen this way.

I remember when a family member injured her knee skiing. She said to my brother, a physician, that she was okay, she just needed to sit a bit. His follow-up to her, “How good are you at knowing when you need help?”

Some of us are not very good at assessing risks in general and risks associated with the pandemic in particular. Various distortions can happen. We might think things are safer than they are. Some people smell gas when others don’t. Then whose judgment do we go with? Some people think the risk of COVID-19 to themselves is low. They may be right. Then they get sick and suffer from an overwhelmed medical system. Famous last words.

In the other extreme, “The sky is falling!” when it is simply sprinkling. This tends to be the case for people who are anxious in general. They frequently think things are worse than they are and hopefully learn that about themselves.

A great divide is occurring in our society over what the COVID-19 risks now and going forward. Many people who are following best practices consistently either assess the risk to be great or they are willing to comply with what the experts and authorities are asking or requiring of them. Some of these people are in fact at greatest risk of death or severe illness should they contract the disease.

An important question in risk assessment is risk to whom or what? It can’t just be the risk to me when the consequences affect others. With the pandemic, a first consideration has been the risk of overwhelming emergency services and hospitals. That is the point of flattening the curve and getting the number of new severe cases per day down to a manageable level. Then we can resume treatments that have been put on hold, like non-emergency surgeries and standard medical appointments. The people who should be best at assessing risk are those with the greatest amount of information. And they need to be people not just concerned with self-interest.

The second question is what information is needed to adequately assess risk. The average citizen does not have access to all of the data. Nor do they know what they don’t know but need to know. The experts do and they inform the civil authorities whose responsibility to stay informed is far greater than the rest of us.

So, the situation calls for us to evaluate how much weight to give to our own and other people’s assessments. How objective am I, are they? How much access to data do I, they, have? The civic mindedness, love your neighbor question is our willingness to accommodate those who assess risk to be greater than we do. We might be willing to accommodate out of concern for our neighbors. We want them to feel safe, not just be safe, now and when things open up more.