We Don’t Know How to Live with Risk

Which makes living through a pandemic even worse


This is Our Time Podcast Series

3 years ago | 6 min read

Photo by Loic Leray on Unsplash

There’s a phrase that I keep hearing lately: “Out of an abundance of caution…” It’s a phrase used to refer an action, or a reaction, generally connected to Covid, where someone did something, which had the potential to be regarded as “extreme,” or possibly “above and beyond” what might have been the normal course of events.

But there’s a fundamental problem. How do you measure extreme actions in a world where the unthinkable keeps getting re-upped and outdone by itself, in 2020? This makes the phrase basically redundant and worthless.

This catch phrase has gotten me thinking the opposite: How is it that I live with caution, in my everyday life? What experience can I draw from? If I buy something at Costco, I have a Member Guarantee of Quality. If I subscribe to a service, I have 30 days to change my mind for a full refund. If I buy something and take it home and change my mind, I have 14 days from the time of purchase to return for cash or store credit. If I buy a new appliance, I can fork out even more money for an Extended Warranty. If I get a new iPhone, for $249 extra I get Apple Care+ which will replace my cracked screen, inevitable within the next two years.

As a wealthy society, we don’t live with caution and uncertainty. We can, and do, buy it off.

As I scroll through my mental logs, I’m drawn to the inevitable conclusion: There’s very little in my consumer history, in my societal touch points, in my charmed existence, that prepares me to participate in a pandemic society — where every action and activity carries a risk. Even at a stripped down level.

No wonder I’m a basket case.

And let’s touch on that. What is living these days? I’m not talking about throwing house-warming parties, going to all-night clubs, packing into a sweaty gym for a muay thai class, attending large gatherings with-or-without-masks…. I’m basically living under house arrest, with dinner and a tip; the tip being kids occasionally leave the house for school and activities, in the small increments that’s available to us, and the odd park-walk-with-friend or short backyard visit that’s subbing in for a social life.

Travel Insurance. Mortgage Title Insurance. Life Insurance. Auto Insurance. Disability Insurance. Business Liability Insurance. Errors and Omissions Insurance….money back guarantees, satisfaction guarantee, thirty-day trial periods, freemium services, extended warranties…Every layer life can be accompanied by an insurance plan, the ability to at least pretend, that there isn’t a risk associated with life. If you can afford it.

GIF by Samantha Hodder from Gify

There’s no bubble wrap to put around the risk that we all face with Covid. There’s no clear avoidance strategy. Yes, you can wear a mask, and please, just go and get one if you’re not wearing one in public, for some crazy science-avoiding reason. BUT STILL. Let’s be clear, you could do nothing wrong, live a very careful life, wear a mask in public, and STILL get the damn virus.

These thoughts slammed into me the other day, when I received a general note from the principle of my child’s school, which stated that there was a Covid case somewhere in that school. Now this was the first case, three weeks after starting school, so I freely imagine it’s the first in what will be many.

When I read this letter, first my heart sunk, then it raced….and then I got a bit sad. It made me long for the old photocopied letter from the public health nurse that there was a case of pediculosis, aka lice, in my child’s classroom, with the blurry many-photocopied page with images of the four-legged creature (just to confirm), should your child have the same condition. You’ve already started scratching your own head, jumped to conclusions, and run home to check. Remember when THIS was the dreaded letter that came out crumpled from the backpack?

Letters like these aren’t meant to harm. It’s a public health imperative to identify the case, and then carefully raise it with the community. They are meant to protect the identity of the person, the personal health records, so that recourse and rebuke against towards that individual can be avoided. But. The problem is that for some folks, fear took over. The race to want to wheedle out exactly WHO the child case was, began, via a Facebook group for parents of the school.

Here’s the thing. What do we do with that fear, of the risk that our kid had come into contact with the Covid-positive case? How do we justify, and then deal with, the fact that the very act of sending our kids into school, carries risk? How do we compute that being part of the public education system during a pandemic means we need to have trust in the public health authorities? And then again, trust systems that have been put in place to mitigate the risk of one case becoming many cases?

See that’s it. It’s all a risk. And how, exactly, do we live it?

Perhaps unfortunately, the general letter didn’t go to the trouble of explaining that IF your child had had direct contact, that family would be receiving a very different email….that’s the one that informs you of the need to self-isolate for a period specified by our local health authority, and it’s 14 days from the point of last contact (whenever the child had last been at school).

Fear takes over reason. And the general letter reminds that the virus has the potential to everywhere, and anywhere. And IF you agree to participate in society, you are unlikely to entirely outrun it. But but but….I want to figure out WHO this case is so that I can determine if my child has been at risk; What if they don’t know just exactly what the kid touched? Where that kid played? Which school bathroom was used?

Most people can’t and won’t know these facts— that is exactly the interface that public health is set up to mitigate. Public health works for the herd, not the individual. And yes, it’s hard to have faith and trust in Public Health Authorities right now, the world over. I live in Toronto, and although we seemed to swiftly deal with the virus this summer, it’s back with full second wave glory.

And when Public Health admits that they have a massive backlog of tests to analyze, and you know from talking to friends that although they know they’ve been exposed, no one has called for contact tracing, you already know that the system that’s built isn’t running at optimal speed.

The stark realization is that, even where the situation is relatively good, even where the systems are sort-of-working, you realize that in actual fact, we are mostly operating blind throughout this moment. And as a result, by default, we are learning how to live with risk.

But up close, we don’t actually have much experience of what risk looks like. Sure, we can wear seatbelts when we drive and follow the speed limit. We can eat healthy and get enough sleep. We can try to live a moderated life, with some of this and some of that….but on balance, let’s be clear we really don’t have tons of societal experiences to draw on here, in this post-industrial, universal health care, post-modern country called Canada.

Covid has already taught us, either directly or indirectly, that there’s no way to insure against our losses: In a year that’s already taken away graduations and rites-of-passage for our kids; Sports teams and building on goals from last year; school plays and concerts stopped in their tracks; Businesses, careers, opportunities and culminating events that took decades to build. And it’s still taking and taking, the final tally of which we can’t yet know.

Maybe our biggest challenge of this pandemic, as a general society, while learning to live with Covid, is learning how to live with risk.

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