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Panic, Nonchalance, Precaution, and Responsibility

take personal responsibility for the virus, particularly for those close to you, who mistake deviations from nonchalance as indistinguishable from panic.

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photo by Jacqueline Macou, via Pixabay

Fires happen occasionally, albeit very rarely. They could be said to have a very low ‘mortality rate’ across the population. The aggregate cost of outfitting adequate fire escapes almost certainly exceeds the costs incurred by fires — or ever likely to be incurred — by several orders of magnitude. But, in this realm, we do not weigh up saved lives in economic terms, within reason. Nobody would accuse proponents of fire escapes of inciting panic. Nobody says we should wait and see if we really need them. If proponents insisted every single door in the world be a fire escape, every wall fireproofed, and every employer required to subsidise a fortnight’s training in fire preparedness, then this criticism would probably be merited. But if all they ask is for fire escapes, I doubt many would see a problem. Moreover, during a rapidly spreading fire seems an odd time to start making such a case.

I should lay my cards on the table: I have been worried about the coronavirus for quite some time. I have no special knowledge of medicine or biology, no less virology. Nor am I generally paranoid, nor even risk-averse; I love a good risk if the payoff profile suits. But I do have an expert, if amateur, interest in what might be called the philosophy of gambling, or — less politely — debunking absurdities in the interpretation of probability and the logic of risk taking.

The simple fact of having searched out those with a similar academic inclination in the prior years led me to the likes of Joe Norman, Robin Hanson, Harry Crane, Ben Hunt, Balaji Srinivasan, and more. I am not claiming to endorse everything these thinkers have said. But I will happily bang the table in insisting that they were absolutely right about the risks of the virus, were brave in speaking up against a chorus of nonchalant, obnoxious, ignorant nay-sayers, and will one day be seen as having performed an invaluable public service.

I penned an article to this effect last week to admonish their natural opponents — risk-illiterate public intellectuals — and to encourage my readers to ignore these faux-sophisticated probabilistic fallacies that seemed to serve little other purpose than to shill the intellect of the author and the standing of the publication. I urged the reader instead to remain calm, rigorously analyse the risks for themselves, and take suitable precautions.

In promoting the article, and generally encouraging greater seriousness and awareness of the risks in various public forums, I believe I have detected a more important fault line that needs to be addressed. Particularly in the United Kingdom, where I live, there has been so much of a media-engendered hysteria over such genuine concerns as panic buying toilet paper and stealing hand sanitiser from hospitals that sensible risk aversion has become a very difficult message to convey. The impression most seem to have is a binary alternative: unrestrained panic or perfect calm. Either everything is fine or everybody is going to die. No doubt this is yet another product of the contemporary journalistic obsession with debate and conflict over complexity and nuance.

I want to argue that this framing may be even more dangerous than risk-illiteracy or general nonchalance alone. It is drowning out those whose message is the most vital. This piece is an attempt to get that message across.

We are far past debate about the danger posed by the virus. Italy has shown this. Readers may not be familiar with exactly what is happening there or what the risks are, precisely. The situation is complex and evolving quickly, so I would not want readers to take my word as read. Please do your own research to verify, and stay on top of events. But as far as I can tell, the most potent danger is not the much-discussed issue of the ‘mortality rate’ or the demographic skew, but the fact of health resources becoming completely overwhelmed. Consider the twitter thread the first tweet of which is below. I have no reason to disbelieve this, nor could I possibly imagine why it would be put forward disingenuously:

So the questions become: can we expect something similar elsewhere? And, if so, what should we do?

We almost certainly do not know what to expect elsewhere. It is likely that simple. There are no data from controlled experiments and we should not pretend we have access to such knowledge. But this is exactly why we should be maximally precautious, because we can see, right in front of us, what can happen. And we don’t even know if this is the worst possible case. The only way to find out what could happen in, for example, the UK, is to do nothing and see. Hopefully it is clear to the reader that this is an unacceptable option.

So what should we do? We should neither panic nor relax. There is an obviously sensible middle ground which I implore readers to consider for themselves, and to try to convince their friends, families, colleagues, and elected representatives to take seriously. As Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, said in a remarkable interview on Channel 4 News last Friday,

“One problem that we face as a society when we have a virus that might have a fatality rate of one percent, and that mortality is concentrated in certain parts of the population — the elderly or the chronically ill — one challenge that we face is that people who are young and generally healthy won’t perceive personal risk and they will govern their behaviour based on what they perceive their personal risk to be. I think we need to start thinking in terms of the social risk.”

Some things we almost certainly do know. The Atalanta vs Valencia Champions League match in Milan three weeks ago seems likely to have furthered the spread of the virus all over Europe, and especially with the travelling support back to Spain. This was strongly suspected even two weeks ago, never mind today. The return leg was played yesterday behind closed doors for the obvious reason of discouraging Milanese visitors — this verdict was enacted before the total quarantine of Lombardy made it moot. Three weeks later, Madrid is now the epicentre in Spain, and yet, right now, tens of thousands of Madrilenians are being allowed to congregate in Liverpool. This could easily have been stopped.

I hope it is clear I am advocating for little more than common sense here. It is important that necessities be available in supermarkets for those who don’t go on a panic shopping spree — especially since it seems obvious that those most vulnerable to the virus are exactly those likely to be left behind in such a rush. But it is not necessary, by any stretch of the imagination, that thousands of strangers from across the continent watch live sports in close quarters. You can watch it on TV. That should be the end of the discussion.

This nuance is readily applicable to most, if not all, aspects of life. We do not all need to self-isolate immediately, entirely, and for indefinitely long. But a great many people who are not working from home can do so with minimal difficulty. A great many more probably should anyway, despite the inconvenience. Schools are a tricky issue given children do not seem to be vulnerable, and many working parents rely on the 9–5 schedule, but universities are a different matter entirely. It is almost trivial to decide to deliver lectures and assign coursework remotely. Without any guidance, students are likely to be a dynamic vector of spread given their constant back and forth to urban centres, and nauseating levels of contact on campus. I was a student fairly recently. I remember this with only mild and selective fondness and am relieved I am not in a similar position today. I have here recounted only those situations that come to me naturally. Readers will have their own, and I implore them to take their instinctive concerns seriously and think about what they are able to temporarily change.

Unfortunately, you may need make whatever changes of your own volition, and drive similar change privately. Probably the only part of this discussion that I think does merit relative panic has been the response of governments in Europe and the US. I have honestly never witnessed such dangerous, corrupt incompetence in my life. Leaking details of a quarantine before it goes into effect, prompting a mass exodus of the infected; allowing flights from pandemic regions without even screening arriving passengers; prohibiting widespread testing due to an email server crash; constantly, incessantly lying; I could write an entire article composed solely of links of this kind. As I give this piece its final touches, I read that the UK Health Minister has the virus.

It is clear to me that government will not help the situation in any meaningful way, or any time soon. Or at least that we should not expect this to happen and should act as if it won’t. I do not say this to panic the reader, but to urge yet more strongly the need for the reader to drive change themselves. Do not wait for interventions from on high. Start a grassroots effort. Educate your friends, petition your employer, pester your colleagues, check in on your elderly neighbours. If they don’t cancel public events, simply refuse to attend. If they don’t let you work from home, take a holiday until they change their minds. If your friends want to go out, just say no. Netflix and chill, and send them this article if you think there is time to influence them. We need widespread and dramatic social distancing. There is no debate on this.

I began with a poker metaphor, and I will finish with one too. Beginners (and risk-illiterate public intellectuals) will often see the flop, turn, and river unfold to their misfortune and exclaim, I should have stayed in! No, they should not have. You judge decisions based on information available at the time, not on information that can only possibly be known after the decision has been made.

There is likely a niggling fear amongst many on the fence about going public with their concerns. It will look like their pleas to take reasonable precautions to mitigate the spread of the virus were foolish and panicked if and only if they work. I have no remedy for this, I’m afraid. Such is life. But life’s ironic cruelty ought not to be reason to avoid doing the right thing. The cruelty of the virus is infinitely worse than your potential for embarrassment, and the information available is more than enough to start acting. I am reminded of the following passage from Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, which, incidentally, it wouldn’t hurt if everybody reread right away,

“Assume that a legislator with courage, influence, intellect, vision, and perseverance manages to enact a law that goes into universal effect and employment on September 10, 2001; it imposes the continuously locked bulletproof doors in every cockpit (at high costs to the struggling airlines) — just in case terrorists decide to use planes to attack the World Trade Centre in New York City …

The person who imposed locks on cockpit doors gets no statues in public squares, not so much as a quick mention of his contribution in his obituary. “Joe Smith, who helped avoid the disaster of 9/11, died of complications of liver disease.” Seeing how superfluous his measure was, and how it squandered resources, the public, with great help from airline pilots, might well boot him out of office. He will retire depressed, with a great sense of failure. He will die with the impression of having done nothing useful.”

This is already worse than 9/11, and it is happening in slow motion, so start locking doors. Do not encourage panic — this is a bad idea regardless. But do strongly discourage nonchalance. Precaution and personal responsibility are what we need. They are what we will need, and they are what we needed all along.

follow me on Twitter @allenf32

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