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Risk.

Friday, May 22, 2020 | 43rd day of the omer; chesed she’b’malchut

Dear All,

Things are fragmenting, and our old fragmentations are now fragmenting further.
Different countries have different policies. Different states are opening up in different ways. Different sub-cultures have their own distinct rhythms and norms. And different political tribes turn out, once more, to have not just different views but even different facts.

Underneath all this are different understandings of the nature of risk. As a society we lack functional numeracy, and it is not a surprise that we are not good at weighing different probabilities in relation to risk. (Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project, about the work of Kahneman and Tversky is a fine thing to read, for starters.)

When the coronavirus was a cloud on what seemed like a distant horizon, in general most of us underreacted to the actual risk. (On Feb 25th I suggested to someone that Hazon needed to prepare for the coronavirus, and got back the reply I am disinclined to put time into such a remote possibility. Exactly one week later the first Hazon staffers were in quarantine – and so it began…)

Now, three months’ later, I fear that we are over-reacting, in various ways, partly because we are conflating three different sorts of risk: there is one reason I should not be concerned about getting the virus, and two reasons that I should be concerned, and each of these is evolving in different ways and has different implications.

The reason for me not to be too concerned is that I’m not over the age of 80 and I don’t have multiple chronic illnesses. The death rate for people who are over the age of 80 and/or who have multiple chronic illnesses is high; for those of us who are not in those categories it is low. In my case I have asthma – this winter I had quite bad asthma – and so there are grounds to believe that if I were to contract the virus it might hit me harder than others, but the likelihood that it would kill me is still very low.

(Note that, as with all probabilities, saying that the likelihood is low or very low doesn’t make it zero. When on any particular day I ride my bike in the city there is a very low, but non-zero, chance that I’ll be injured, and a still lower, but again non-zero, chance that I will be killed. If I ride my bike not once but 200 or 300 times in a year, then the chances are 200 or 300 times higher. Which is to say: still low… but 200 or 300 times less low.)

But although I may personally be “low-risk”, a reason for me to be concerned is that although contracting the virus may not kill me, I may inadvertently kill someone else. Every person who died got the virus from someone else. Most of the people who transmitted the virus (again, statistically, by definition) haven’t died from it. So although I don’t necessarily have to be hugely concerned about whether I get the virus in relation to my own health, I do have to be very concerned about the possibility that I might contract it and pass it on to someone who could die from it. (And, again, think about “hugely concerned” in that sentence. I don’t want to get a horrible flu, which could make me feel awful for days or weeks, and which could kill me. The question, though, is not whether I want it – I do not – but how concerned about it I ought to be. And the answer is, concerned… but not hugely concerned.)

The second reason for me to be concerned is that if I contract the virus and require hospitalization, or I contract the virus and cause others to need hospitalization, I may cause the hospitals to overload, with immensely tragic consequences. This is the issue of “flattening the curve,” which we learned about a couple months ago.

 

I want to disentangle these three points because each of them is not static over time.

For the first one – the chance that contracting the virus will be fatal to me – the likelihood changes slightly over time (as better treatments and treatment protocols come on stream), and the likelihood that I will be exposed to the virus also changes over time (this chance rose through February and March, as more and more people around me – unbeknownst to them – were contagious, and it is declining, now, as fewer people become contagious.)

For the second one, the chance that I could kill a high-risk person by transmitting the virus from me to them, the chances are now declining if my and/or their behavior changes. This is why, on the one hand, 80-somethings and other people at high risk are being especially cautious, and it is also why, for the sake of others as much as for ourselves, those of us who are not high-risk are also being cautious. But note that, in February, I could easily have gotten the virus (I was in contact with people who were in contact with people who, in retrospect, did have the virus) and, right now, it’s statistically harder for me to get the virus (I’m interacting with far fewer people; I’m wearing a mask outside; I’m washing my hands scrupulously when I come into the apartment.) So, again: these behaviors do reduce the risk of my contracting or transmitting the virus; they do not reduce it to zero; but they do reduce it very significantly.

For the third one, again, the risk will vary over time. Right now, in New York, the lockdown has mostly worked and so hospitals coped, just about. If we loosen preventative measures, and there is a subsequent spike in numbers, we can expect that public health measures will immediately be taken to slow that spike.

I write all of this because, right now, every region of government, every company, every non-profit, every family and every person is weighing these different risk factors. I have had too many recent conversations in which people have been certain that we should do X, or Y, or it would be crazy to do A, or B, or not do C.

That is why it is so critical to engage with a probabilistic reality; to realize that these are the weighings of different kinds of risk. Each involves known facts, estimates, the opinion of experts, people’s personal circumstances, and the different relationships to risk that different people have. It is vital that as a society – and as a Jewish community – we continue to review and revise our conclusions over time; that we remember that no option is ever risk-free; and that different people and institutions can legitimately come to different conclusions or policies.

In the most recent period we have seen this particularly in relation to overnight Jewish summer camps, and day camps, and whether or when or how they decided to open or (in most cases, so far, not open); but soon enough it will also be each business, each restaurant, each synagogue, each school. There are health risks in opening, but also health risks in staying home. We have lost lives to the coronavirus, but we none of us know if we are one of the people who, statistically, had this not happened, would have died in a car crash these last eight weeks – but in fact we’re alive today because we weren’t in our car, or we weren’t the pedestrian hit by the car. And so on, in endless chains of causation.

All of this is true at the largest planetary levels also. This Sunday on After The Plague, one of my guests will be Professor Shaul Bassi, the founder of Beit Venezia and Hazon’s partner on the Living Under Water project. We’ll talk about the extent to which the challenges and choices facing Venice are heightened versions of those facing the entire world. We have reduced our carbon output, these last two months, and the world is the better for it; but literally hundreds of millions of people have lost their livelihoods, even apart from the loss of life. In that time Venice has been reclaimed for the Venetians, who for the first time in decades have had quiet in their beautiful and unique city; and yet their economy is hugely dependent on the tourists who clog their streets. How do they reach some new balance? This is their question, and ours, and the world’s.

And this, by the way, is what a “Green New Deal” is all about. If governments are able to print money in response to this Covid emergency, ought not the future of the entire planet to be equivalently compelling? I learned from Anna Hanau the idea that “you know you’re on the right track, when your solution to one problem solves a bunch of others.” That is what it would be, now and in this next decade, to invest money in healthcare for all; in improving alternative transportation systems; in providing free high-quality broadband in rural areas; in housing the homeless; in fixing our schools and hospitals; and in providing a version of the GI Bill for education and student loan debt relief for the twenty-first century. Finding low-carbon ways to invest in our future made sense before the virus, and doing so makes even more sense now.

And, coming down to land, Hazon too faces complex choices. Right now we’re making plans to relaunch our bike rides and to develop a new version of Adamah; watch this space for announcements on both in the near future. Isabella Freedman remains closed, but the small number of self-catering units that we have will shortly be available for rent, and we’re assessing the risks of whether some sort of opening of the campus will be possible in the future. 

The superb Great Big Jewish Food Fest is underway (and some of our events are listed on hazon.org/calendar, and below). Next Friday, May 29th, is the first day of Shavuot. Normally at Freedman we have our amazing goat parade. This year instead we’re hosting an online event with some of our partners: Earth-Based Shavuot: A Day of Learning with Hazon, Pearlstone, Wilderness Torah, and Urban Adamah.

Finally: in this week’s Torah portion we enter the desert and begin by conducting a census. I love that this is in the Torah, because the Torah is fundamentally not about “religion” in the Western/Christian sense; it is rather about jurisprudence; it’s about the good society, and how one constructs it, and that begins with full participation. This week Liz and I gave money to a very important 501c3, The Voter Participation Center, which is doing critical work now to make sure that every vote, and every voter, gets counted in the elections this fall. If you want to honor the Torah’s census, then an investment in voter participation, this fall, would be – in my judgment – a risk worth taking.

Shabbat shalom,

Nigel