College has been back in session barely a week, and already we see pictures of large, unmasked parties, followed by reports of Covid-19 outbreaks and then a move to online classes. It has already happened at the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame, and we can expect more to come. The students seem so reckless and irresponsible; they just ruined their college semester, and now they and their non-partying fellow students must go back to online learning. The parties appear to be walking, breathing, and disease-spreading evidence that human beings are irrational and can’t understand risk.
Our economy and public health now depend on our fellow citizens making sensible risk choices. Managing our lives in the age of the coronavirus is an especially difficult risk problem. We must weigh carefully the risks involved in the activities we choose because our choices affect others. People are notoriously bad at making decisions under uncertainty; they are perhaps even worse at accounting for how their choices impact others.
So far, it appears that many are doing a poor job of it. Outbreaks trouble the South, West, and Midwest, while young people in Europe are now causing virus spikes there, too. People attend raves, house parties, and motorcycle rallies, and they get shamed on both social and conventional media—but they keep doing it.
When people can’t make good choices, government normally steps in, though to a widely varying degree, depending on where you are. China simply forbade people to leave their homes for months. Sweden put few restrictions on its citizens, leaving it to them to make good choices and tolerate some level of the virus. In America, we’ve tried a range of approaches, depending on the region and level of quarantine fatigue. Some argue that the government should take a hard line and remove risk with continued shutdowns, until a vaccine is developed that will eliminate risk once and for all.
But these expectations misunderstand the role of government and science. They can’t remove risk in our lives; they can merely reduce it.
Given America’s cultural and legal constraints, we have no choice but to trust our fellow citizens to make good choices—and many are doing so. Americans are mostly wearing masks, especially in communities that have suffered outbreaks. We tend to be bad at assessing abstract risks that we haven’t experienced before. In June, most Americans didn’t know anyone who’d been infected; now 67 percent do. As virus risk feels more real, we can expect people to take it more seriously.
People can make good risk decisions if they get good information that conveys risk to them in ways they find meaningful—but risk communication throughout the pandemic has been poor. First, the virus was minimized; then, we were told millions of Americans would die. We were told that masks don’t work, then that they would save our lives. We were told that there was no immunity; now, it appears that immunity can be attained for at least several months. Being outside is safer, but parks and beaches are regularly shut down. Large gatherings are unsafe and must be avoided, unless it’s a protest for a particular cause—but only for that cause. We’ve left Americans to try to make sense of risk, while misleading them at every turn and asking them to put their lives on hold. It’s hard to blame people for being skeptical about expert opinion and for making their own calculations.
But even with better information, the coronavirus risk isn’t straightforward for younger people. The odds are extremely low that they’ll die from the virus (though we still don’t know the long-term effects if they do get sick). We do know that it’s incredibly infectious, dangerous for people over 70, and we have no idea when it will end. But asking young people to delay their careers and social lives for what could be few years to stop the spread is an extraordinary sacrifice and not realistic. Young people may not be such bad risk-takers; they may simply have made a calculation to take their chances (and avoid the elderly) rather than give up work or meaningful social contact indefinitely.
We need better guidance, sensible policies, and less moralizing. Rather than arbitrary restrictions that drive people to socialize and work underground, we must communicate risk honestly and then accept that people will make their own choices. We can help people make better sense of risk by describing it in terms of frequencies instead of probabilities. Widespread and frequent testing would also help people quickly realize the consequences of their actions—learning, for example, that an outbreak followed a party that you attended makes the infection seem less remote.
Government can help people internalize risk choices through smart regulation. This time, though, neither government nor science can remove risk, at least in the near term. We must rely on our citizens to act responsibly and give them the tools to do so.
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