When it comes to health, risk is a global algorithm.
As an IT security specialist I became quite familiar with risk management. What is it we are protecting? What are the threats? How will we protect ourselves from those threats?
A vital component of IT security is our behavior. All the technology in the world cannot protect you when people are not aware or simply do not care.
So along comes COVID-19. I quickly recognized the protocols when government officials began to put up the barriers to retard the spread of the virus, eventually leading to the lockdowns. Risk entered into our daily conversation. Risk determined our actions. Working for the US Forest Service, I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who were quite familiar with risk management (forest fighting ring a bell?). It did not take long for the USFS to take measures that protected their employees and the public as much as possible from COVID-19. In summary, our actions were the most effective at minimizing risk.
If you wish to get a perspective on risk, simply look at your immediate circle of friends and family. In my case, I have a daughter living in Brooklyn. New York City was in the eye of the storm and my daughter’s perspective on risk was significantly heightened in comparison to myself, safely nested in my townhouse in Juneau, Alaska. The number of deaths in NYC is more than half the population of Juneau! The age of my family members range from a new born to a 94 year-old great-grandfather. My wife and I are at retirement age and listed in a high-risk category because of age.
Needless to say, travel was out. Although flying was an option, the restrictions evolved from recommendations to exceptions only. The flights suddenly went from full to half full to scarcely a soul. (Juneau can only be accessed by air or sea). The borders closed, so Plan B (traveling by car) was no longer an option. But even so, the risk was too great. Travel is one of the highest-risk activities and a two-week quarantine recognized that fact. Who has four weeks of leave time? And who would want to take the chance of not only catching a disease, but transmitting the virus to a newborn or to a nonagenarian?
Assessing risk is, in some sense, an act of love. The Greek language has six words for love, four of which address the kind of love that thinks of another person first before considering your own interests. It was sad to see in the news people who thought their right to express their views warranted literally exposing others to a disease that killed hundreds as a consequence. The kids who partied in Florida, the bar that was packed in the Ozarks, the revelers at Mardi Gras, celebrants of Chinese New Year in New York City, demonstrators and Trump rallies, and the numerous cases where getting together at a church or at a family reunion was more important than the health of the most vulnerable.
And remember that all this risk is based on a phenomenon that is essentially unknowable. The only things that are real are the overwhelmed clinics and hospitals, and the deaths that follow. Yet risk is something an individual must assess for themselves. They must have knowledge. They must have an awareness of the people around them. Yet it is only human to base your actions on what you feel, not on your knowledge. You feel good. The doctors and nurses you may not see. You don’t know anyone who has died from the virus, much less gotten sick. What you see on the news, if you watch the news, are abstractions.
Abstractions until you get sick.
Risk is knowing your vulnerabilities. Do you use public transit? We all go to the grocery store. What do we do to reduce risk? We love to eat out. What can be done to reduce risk? We are faithful members of a church. Is it necessary to gather together? We have friends we would like to invite over. How can that be done? Each action we consider we must assess how we are exposed, and evaluate the potential for infection.
Understanding risk is also helpful in knowing certainty. When the lockdowns occurred, there was a risk that people who lost their jobs would not be able to buy food and pay rent. Measures were taken by Congress and states to address that risk. But as two months passed, the risk became a certainty. The rent was not going to be paid and the lines at the food bank were getting longer and longer. Certainty is part of the calculus of risk. People will have to go back to work (and they did). Now we must assess risk of exposure in a world where things are more “normal,” except for the higher probability of exposure to COVID-19. Let’s continue to pray that that will not become a certainty.
And lately other events have shown there is another element to risk – passion. You would expect that in the face of a deadly pandemic that reason would guide us. But alongside reason is our heart, our passion. We saw this initially with demonstrators in Michigan protesting the lockdown, defying all safeguards to show that the risk is either acceptable, inevitable or mythological. Then came the death of George Floyd and we realized that there was still in this world concerns greater than COVID-19. People took to the street, crowding together, shouting, and not wearing masks. Alas, Americans are not so tidy in demonstrating as the people of Hong Kong.
Once this pandemic subsides, we will have ample opportunity to compare notes on the best way to manage risk. Countries like Taiwan and Singapore did exceptionally well at controlling the virus. Many countries succeeded in controling the outbreak while maintaining functioning economies. But not every society is the same, nor is every government.
In the world of IT security, transparency is critical. Without an open exchange of knowledge, risk of attack is greater. Pandemics are no different. Taiwan was successful because they understood China and its lack of transparency. They acted on the worse-case scenario. It turns out they were correct, but because of the politics surrounding the recognition of Taiwan as a country, their expertise was marginalized and millions paid the price.
A likely outcome to this pandemic will be the emergence of foreign policy based on transparency when it comes to health. When it comes to health, risk is a global algorithm. There are no exceptions. When a country chooses to hide the truth, its access to the rest of the world should be guarded. Taiwan understood this and their preventive measures were quite effective. Some commentators have stated that COVID-19 will go down in history as China’s Chernobyl. That is quite ironic when you consider that China provided a template for responding to the virus. But the censoring of information, the purging of medical personnel who shared concerns about COVID-19 to the rest of the world, and the death of some of them – added up to a disturbing pattern that placed the rest of the world at considerable risk.
By Eric Niewoehner
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