So, here we are: summer has come, the restaurants are serving, the cruise ships are sailing, and people are gathering in large numbers indoors and out. It seems Americans have decided that they’ve had enough and that the Covid pandemic is over — at least for them. As the threat of outbreaks of the Delta variant looms on the horizon, the Country is still only 46% fully vaccinated, with rates ranging from a high of 65% in Vermont to a low of 20% in Mississippi. (Here in Texas, we are at 41%.) Not surprisingly, the greatest resistance to getting vaccines is now among the young. Having been told for so long that they were the least vulnerable, little wonder that they are now skeptical about the need for a vaccination at all.
And we all know that the younger you are, the more invincible you feel.
In the last decade or so, a new field has emerged called Enterprise Risk Management (ERM). ERM is grounded in future projections that seek to identify adverse conditions and events that may not have not happened before, but that could have disastrous consequences if they do (think of “Acts of God,” which are not usually insurable). In contrast, Traditional Risk Management (TRM) is based on predictable patterns of adverse events in the past in order to minimize the loss should those events happen again (think traditional insurance for common occurrences such as illness, accidents, etc.). The ERM approach incorporates both ordinary, predictable risk planning, as well as the anticipation of unforeseen risks going forward and how they might be handled should they occur.
You can now obtain an MBA with a specialization in ERM. All sorts of industries employ formalized risk management professionals and techniques, including aviation, construction, finance, insurance, energy, environmental protection, AND public health. With all due respect to Dr. Fauci and the CDC, perhaps we each should have had our own personal ERM risk manager for dealing with Covid, sort of like a personal investment advisor or a cybersecurity analyst. The problem with pandemic management over the last year has been that politicians became our risk managers, calculating good and bad results not always on the physical welfare of the general public, but on the economic impacts in their local communities and the odds of their own chances for re-election. Even the decision to fast track vaccine development, while ultimately a good one, was largely motivated, and thus tainted, by the politics of the 2020 election.
It occurred to me recently that living long and living well is all about risk assessment, and not just during a pandemic. Certainly, these many months of confusing, often conflicting advice about spreading infections and mitigation techniques have given us a crash course in the challenges of trying to calculate health risks for ourselves and our families. But if we stop to think about it, we realize that most of us have been calculating risks and making educated decisions about gains and losses for the better part of our lives. Welcome to adulthood. Granted, some choices, such as moving across the country for a new job or deciding to start a family, are weightier because they have major long-term consequences, but if we consistently avoid all risky decisions in life, we soon find ourselves in a permanent state of inertia. Making no choice at all becomes a choice in itself.
From the foods we eat to the friends we cultivate to the places we go to the activities we pursue, almost every choice in life involves some risk, however small. But, as they say about the lottery, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” Young people often make foolish, impetuous choices precisely because they are young and inexperienced in the world, but over time and with the wisdom to learn from past mistakes, most of us manage to become comfortable, even confident in calculating the odds and making the right moves.
Except in extreme circumstances like a global pandemic when collective anxiety, isolation and fear take us over and immobilize us to the point that every move, every day, including even the most mundane decisions like grocery shopping, become weighted with seemingly outsized consequences. Rational or not, these concerns are born out of unusual situations; when everything is unpredictable and uncertain, withdrawal inevitably follows. And risk avoidance is not the same as risk management.
I learned all about that last year. I sailed through the early months of lockdown by avoiding any and all unnecessary risk as I stayed inside, worked on my art and my writing, cooked fabulous meals, read through piles of neglected books and magazines, and tackled long-overdue home projects. It was a collective “time out” for the whole country and I found, as did many, that I was surprisingly content to stay at home and be relieved of all social obligations. Yes, I missed my closest friends, and yes, certainly I missed our lifestyle of constant travel and adventure, but I also found the solitude and slower pace restive, even welcome. Without all the outside noise and distraction, I could focus my attention and immerse myself in the “creative flow” of my artistic pursuits. The single biggest decision I had to make most days was what was for dinner; the single biggest risk I took most days was braving the grocery store to prepare my ambitious menus.
Funny how easily one can become acclimated to an entirely new set of circumstances and how soon a new reality becomes the norm. Many people started to burn out on isolation a few months into Covid, but not me. I stayed productive and stayed hopeful and was determined to persevere at every stage with mask-wearing, social distancing, crowd avoidance, hand washing, and of course, the vaccines. And now I find myself calculating the risk of abandoning all those mitigation techniques among an increasingly carefree society of the unmasked and the unvaccinated.
With recurring outbreaks of virus variants causing cities and countries around the world to suddenly retrench into shut-downs, and with many areas of our own Country woefully short of any kind of herd immunity through vaccines, the Delta and other emerging variants threaten a new wave of outbreaks come fall. (As of this writing, it has now shown up in all 50 states.) The World Health Organization recently recommended that even those who are vaccinated should continue Covid protocols, including mask wearing, especially as flu season approaches and the need for a vaccine booster becomes a bigger issue. Some community leaders in America where vaccination rates are low are now starting to recommend the same.
So here’s the thing: life is unpredictable and even an expert in ERM can’t foresee the truly unforeseeable. Conditions, even science, continue to evolve. Ultimately, we each do the best we can with the knowledge we have to calculate the risks and then make our next move.
It’s sort of like a game of chess, except that you’re mostly playing it by yourself.