When I make decisions about interacting with the wider world during COVID, I hear two little voices. These voices alternate between encouraging me to go out to socialize and warning me to be careful as the coronavirus lurks everywhere.
Before I go to an event, the voices in my head chatter about safety. The first voice says something reasonable like, “Don’t worry, you’ll be physically distancing and wearing a mask.” This voice chants Yes! Yes! Go! You will be fine! There’s not much COVID around here.
The second voice sounds a warning with words like, “Can I afford to risk getting sick? Or bringing the virus home to my husband? Or spreading it to my grandchildren?” This voice screams No! No! Don’t go! Fear kicks in and underlines potential dangers especially as, once again, the daily rates of positive tests in Ontario are spiking.
Risks and Benefits
The two inner voices argue about risks and benefits — sometimes for days — before I go to a social activity. Each voice makes claims to support its position with one citing the risks and the other tantalizing me with all the benefits.
I know that every decision in life involves a degree of risk. When I drive my car, I take a risk of having an accident or getting a traffic ticket. But, without using my car, I’m stuck at home or on public transit. If I choose to use my car to travel, I accept some level of risk when driving.
With any life decision, I weigh the benefits. The benefit of driving is convenience and comfort when I need to get around town or go to the cottage.
Similar to the risks and benefits of driving, there are risks and benefits to COVID-related decisions. If I meet friends for morning coffee in the park, I have the benefit of socialization. I can mitigate the risk with precautions such as keeping 2 meters away, wearing my mask, minimizing the degree and duration of exposure, and washing my hands as soon as I get home. I can also mitigate risk by limiting the number of times I leave the house. I can choose to go to places and events that are not crowded — or leave a venue if too many people show up.
Evaluating Risks and Benefits
Scientists have clear definitions of risk and benefit when conducting research especially when human subjects are involved.
In my personal life, I’m aware of the risks of contracting the virus including the harm that may come to me and my family. Evaluating benefits is trickier. I need to consider what’s in it for me. If I’m taking a significant risk to participate in something that is not terribly valuable to me, then I should not attend.
Yet, I long to move back into regular social contact in my network. I evaluate the benefit of going to an indoor movie theatre to watch a movie when I have entertainment options at home. I evaluate the benefit of going to my gym knowing that exercise benefits both my physical health and mental health. I also worry that gyms notoriously have poor ventilation that may expose me to people exercising vigorously without masks.
In my evaluation, I think of the relationship benefit of time I spend with my grandchildren against the risk that they may be exposed to COVID now that they have begun attending school and daycare. If the risks are similar, there is no question that I will give priority to the risk of exposure when spending time with grandchildren over the risk of exposure to socialize with people with whom I don’t have close relationships.
Important to any evaluation of risks and benefits is an acknowledgement of uncertainty regardless of the decision. It’s impossible to predict nor fully control exposure to the virus. The only solution is to make the best choice given the knowledge that I have.
In the process of decision making, the two little voices will keep the debate on COVID alive in my head. I’ll agonize about options. Sometimes, I’ll vacillate back and forth among choices. Regardless of any decision, dealing with uncertainty is an aspect of coping with this pandemic — and managing the chatter inside my head!