(credit: Dov Harrington CC BY)

Gambling with the undead

In these surreal times, it is good to acknowledge the gambles we and others make

I am a gambler. The UK is in a near-lockdown state, and yesterday I needed to go to the shops for some provisions. It was quiet, and it was easy to stay more than 2 metres from anyone else. But later on, as I had got home, washed my hands and put my bread, produce, cereal and a bottle of wine (and even some kitchen roll!) away, I realized that anyone could have touched these items before me. Including people who might have coughed or sneezed in their hand just before. To be absolutely safe, I should have thoroughly wiped every single item in my bag.

And I never did — so I gambled. I bet that the chance my purchases were contaminated, and I would somehow pick up that contamination and infect myself was negligible. I could have spent 10 minutes wiping everything, but I bet that it would be fine to ignore that risk, and in return saved myself some time.

So, in a very real sense, I gambled with my life. And I suspect you have done the same, many times. Even in normal times, we make many choices where we could opt for an alternative that keeps us (or others) safer or healthier. But we make a trade-off and choose the riskier path, because it saves us some time, money or effort, or because it makes our life at that moment a bit more enjoyable.

Most of the time, we don’t even realize we are doing this, and most of the time, the risks involved are quite small. And in these surreal lockdown times, where the focus of our attention is how many people succumbed to the novel coronavirus in the last 24 hours, too, there is a lot of gambling going on.

Drinking at a party
Drinking at a party
0.2% chance of dying — decent odds for the last party in months? (image: Mauricio Mascaro/Pexels)

Young people have been gambling with their life. The case fatality rate (CFR) of COVID-19 is still not quite settled, but we know that it is a lot higher than for ordinary influenza, and currently estimated at 2.3% of people infected (although it varies a lot between countries). What we also know is that it varies a lot by age range. Chinese data suggest that, for teens, the CFR is just under 0.2%. This sounds very small — and that is of course if you contract the virus. From the Spring Break to the Lockdown and (Fuck) Corona parties in many European countries, young people gambled that 0.2% was negligible, and certainly nothing to worry about.

Arguably, they had a point. Earlier this week, Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst, commenting on a sudden surge in hospital admissions in the preceding 24 hours, warned that young people were not immune: “a number of the youngsters now in intensive care attended Lockdown parties the evening the pubs were ordered to close” (which was on 13 March in Belgium). But even though COVID-19 is about 4 times as deadly for a 20-year old as the background risk of dying ( 0.05% in the UK), it still means that only about 2 infected people in a thousand will die. That may well look like a risk worth taking for the last party in quite possibly many months.

However, they didn’t just gamble with their own life. They also gambled with the lives of the people they might infect. Someone with the virus will typically transmit the virus to 2.5–3 others; these in turn will do the same and so on. After ten iterations, the number of people thus infected is well above 10,000 (possibly even in excess of 50,000), so with a CFR of 2.3%, that means an infected person could be implicated in the deaths of many hundreds of people.

This sounds terrible: a likelihood of dying of 0.2% may seem a reasonable price to pay for a good party, but the death of hundreds of people? But it is of course not so clear cut. It is impossible to trace one person’s infection back to one specific individual, many iterations ago, just like it is impossible to trace the deaths of one person as a result of air pollution in a city to an individual driver.

Our gambles can have direct consequences for ourselves and for others. If we drive like a lunatic, we can harm ourselves and other people, and if we do, the responsibility we carry is clear. But when it comes to contagious diseases, epidemics and pandemics, that responsibility is so diffuse that it is much harder to appreciate. We are all a tiny little bit responsible, to the extent that we feel we can consider our own behaviour as insignificant.

There is another kind of gambling going on, though. While most of us are cooped up in our homes for most of the day, keeping our contact with potentially contagious others to a strict minimum, some people are knowingly betting their life in order to serve others.

Doctor with mouth mask treated a small child
Doctor with mouth mask treated a small child
She may not look like a gambler, but she is betting her life (image: Shane Ede CC BY)

The people in the shops, who make sure there is food and drink on our table, detergent in our washing machine, and loo roll in our bathrooms, these great people are in direct contact with hundreds of people, every day, many of whom might be about to start showing symptoms, and unknowingly pass on the dreaded virus. And perhaps even more so, there are the hundreds of thousands of medical personnel and carers who, day after day, treat and look after COVID-19 patients whose life is in grave danger.

I don’t think I took much of a risk when, last night at 8pm, I stepped out of my front door, and joined millions of other people in the UK applauding for them. Clap for our carers was kicked off by London-based Dutch yoga teacher Annelies Pas to honour care and healthcare workers, replicating similar initiatives in other countries.

Of course, it will have had no discernible direct effect on stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus, that wretched piece of DNA, neither alive nor dead, that is doing so much damage. But as a symbol of gratitude and respect for these courageous people, who day in day out gamble with the undead, literally putting their own life at stake in order to save that of others, the applause and the beating of kitchen utensils on pots and pans last night was a moving and uplifting event.

We need that kind of thing, too, in these weird times.

Stay safe, stay healthy. Look after yourself and after each other.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on March 27, 2020.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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