April 20, 2021
I came across a Times article by David Leonhardt that presented a different take on life in the post-pandemic era. It concerned a fable used by Guido Calabresi, a federal judge and Yale law professor, that he has been telling law students for more than three decades. He tells the students to imagine a god offering society a wondrous invention that would improve everyday life in almost every way. It would allow people to spend more time with friends and family, see new places, and do jobs they otherwise could not do. It would also come with a high cost. In exchange for bestowing this invention on society, the god would choose 1,000 young men and women and strike them dead. He then asks: “Would you take the deal?” Almost invariably, the students say no. The risk is too high.
The professor then delivers the fable’s lesson: “What’s the difference between this and automobiles?” In fact, automobiles kill more than 1,000 young Americans each year, and the US death toll is around 40,000 annually. We accept this toll because vehicle crashes have always been part of our lives. Leonhardt calls this a classic example of human irrationality about risk. We often underestimate large, chronic dangers, and fixate on tiny risks, like plane crashes or shark attacks. This is particularly true if the risk is new. This could be used to draw inference to the covid-19 pandemic. The US has lost over 572,000 people and there have been over 3,000,000 covid deaths worldwide. It is a global pandemic that has upended daily life for more than a year, changed how we live, where we work, and what we wear on our faces. Fortunately, it is curable, but it also has risks.
The vaccines have nearly eliminated death, hospitalization and other serious covid illness among people who have received shots. The vaccines have also radically reduced the chances that people contract even a mild version of covid or can pass it on to others. Vaccinated people still get covid (about 1 in every 11,000), just as nearly 110 people will die in automobile accidents every day, and prior to the pandemic, approximately 60,000 people die annually in the US from the flu. There will likely never be a time of zero risk, but we can use the knowledge gained in vaccination production and social interaction (masks, distancing, hand washing) to move forward in our new normal. This is worth the risk.
Thoughts: As I read Leonhardt’s article I realized that irrational risk goes both ways. I understand how we cringe when we hear of isolated cases of plane crashes or shark attacks but do not pay attention to the greater number of automobile accidents. I also know of the great number of persons who have been saved from death during an accident because they wore a seat belt and had air bags deploy. As humans we do tend to fear the unknown even when known causes have a greater effect. However, that does not mean we should ignore safety measures when they are also known. Estimates tell us around 15,000 (37%) of people in accidents are saved by wearing seat belts every year. They also say around the same number (14,000) would be saved by continuing to wear masks this year. Irrational fear is one thing, not dying seems to be another. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.