Lately, I have seen a lot of media coverage about wearing masks to reduce risk from COVID-19. Folks are going crazy over this. I am puzzled by it all and wonder how it became a political football.
Risk Is Not Binary
Most of us don’t have a real grasp of risk. We think of risk as binary. Something is risky or it’s not. So, when we talk casually about risk, we feel one of two things will definitely happen. It will surely get you, or you are 100% safe. This confusion hurts us when we confront a crisis or discuss the precautions we need to take to protect ourselves and others.
An Example of Risk and Choice
So, what does all of this have to do with choice? Here is an example. Say, I cross a busy street at the intersection with the lights because it’s lower risk than jaywalking. But is it 100% safe to cross at the intersection? Of course not! But by doing this, I avoid many of the hazards from crossing the street. I don’t eliminate them. There is always the chance that some jackass will blast through the intersection and cream me, no matter how careful I am. So, my choice to cross at the intersection doesn’t give me a 100% guarantee, it just reduces the odds of terrible stuff happening.
Choice and COVID-19
The same things apply with COVID-19. I have heard crazy stuff in this public debate. For example:
Wearing masks causes cancer, they’re just not telling us!
Wearing a mask is the first step towards us all being micro-chipped and monitored!
Putting aside the ridiculous, there is one argument that feels like common sense and therefore is the most dangerous of them all. Some folks say wearing a mask isn’t 100% effective, so you shouldn’t bother. This is the excuse they offer to justify doing nothing to protect themselves or others. This view falls right into the trap we create when we don’t fully understand the nature of risk.
Saftey is a Choice
We accept all sorts of safety precautions without expecting guarantees. For example, we know that seatbelts don’t prevent accidents. But we also know that wearing one improves the odds of getting through an accident; perhaps not unhurt, but alive to drive another day.
We also go along with many other safety precautions with no push back. Often, we get really peeved with folks who don’t comply. For example:
- We wear pads and helmets when we play sports;
- We wear hardhats and safety boots on the job site; and
- We wear heavy clothes and parkas when we go outside in the winter.
These things all reduce risk, but they don’t give a guarantee we won’t be hurt playing a game, at work, or going outside.
Choices That Reduce Risk
We need view masks through the same lens. Wearing a mask is not a guarantee that you won’t get sick. But we learn more every day about COVID-19. We now know that wearing a mask sure as heck reduces our risk and that of others. It improves the odds. When faced with the devastating effects of this disease, I’ll take the improved odds, especially when wearing a mask is so trivial.
I will also maintain my physical distance and wash my hands as often as possible. These things also reduce risk, but they don’t eliminate it.
Death, Taxes and Patience
The only guarantees in life are death and taxes. Otherwise, I have to work to minimize harm to me, my family, and those folks who I meet every day. It is only right. Given the severity of this disease, anything else is foolish.
I understand that folks are tired, scared, and more than a little inconvenienced. We all feel the same way, and denial is a normal reaction to these emotions. So, we need to be patient, listen to each other’s fears, and understand the actual reasons for fussing about masks. With this understanding we can work together towards a safer new normal.