COVID-19 and Responses to Uncertainty
What the Pandemic Can Teach Us About Making Decisions in High Pressure Situations
by Matt Legge
Matt Legge is the Peace Program Coordinaor and the Communications Coordinator of the Canadian Friends Service Committee. He is also the author of Are We Done Fighting? Building Understanding in a World of Hate and Division. He has been corresponding with us regarding the Constructive Conflict Initiative, and recently offered these thoughts for the Initiative's COVID-19 blog.
There’s a chance that you’ll die of shigellosis. How do you react to that information?
The US Centre for Disease Control says that worldwide shigellosis kills about 600,000 people a year. But if you’re like me, you don’t know anything about it, you can’t think of a friend or relative who died from it, and so it doesn’t frighten you much. It’s just one of an endless list of issues to worry about, and there’s only so much worrying you can do.
Personally, I’ve noticed my feelings about COVID-19 changing significantly day to day. When I see a number of people wearing masks and appearing tense, I feel that way too. A news report says I’m at very low risk due to my age and not having issues like respiratory problems? I’m suddenly much calmer. Nothing has changed in the world, it’s just the information I’m accessing in the moment.
We don’t make decisions out of thin air; we look around to see what others are doing. So our choices can spread through our networks, just like COVID-19 does. We each have a responsibility to be careful what we’re spreading.
Unsurprisingly, many places seem divided in their responses to the pandemic, even though it has the potential to impact all of us (although certainly not equally). I think the wide range of responses we’ve seen—from panic to indifference, from racism to acts of selfless generosity—reflects some important facts, including how we decide what information to access and trust.
We live in a moment with fewer gatekeepers and a faster spread of ideas than ever before. Some of the wild speculation out there (that COVID-19 was created by aliens, for instance) is easy for most of us to dismiss. However stress makes conspiracy theories more appealing, and in situations with so many unknowns, it’s understandable that we want answers. In terms of the speculation about COVID-19’s origins, there are multiple ideas raised by credible news sources, so it’s tough to know what to believe. That’s not to mention all of the conflicting views expressed by public health experts about lockdowns, wearing masks, how the virus spreads, the benefits and harms of contact tracing apps, etc.
|All of the competing messages can undermine shared trust.|
All of the competing messages can undermine shared trust. When trust is eroded, that bodes poorly for our shared health and wellbeing. Practices like physical distancing, washing our hands, or wearing masks only work if enough people consistently do them, which requires believing public health experts and feeling a sense of community or mutual responsibility.
Here in Toronto on a sunny day in late April, after weeks living under the stress of lockdowns, a group of protesters took to the streets. Their signs included one that read: “To deny people their human rights is to deny their very humanity–Nelson Mandela.” This is the nature of our beliefs. Whenever we come to believe something, we can find an authoritative voice that sounds to us like it’s on our side. (You can download a chapter I wrote explaining this phenomenon in detail here.)
|The pandemic is also amplifying our different ways of thinking about and acting in the face of uncertainty.|
The pandemic is also amplifying our different ways of thinking about and acting in the face of uncertainty. We’re always making decisions with limited and possibly inaccurate information. We never know for sure whether or not we’ll catch an illness, have an accident, or be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That can stress us out. As with everything, some of us are more susceptible to this than others.
What is uncertainty though? Amazingly enough, there are actually multiple ways to not know something.
Researcher Deborah Scott spent four years studying how a United Nations body deals with the uncertainties raised by new technologies. She points out that making decisions about something new can involve:
- Risk. In day-to-day conversations we talk about risks, but that’s often technically incorrect. To know the risk of something, scientists have to already know a lot about it. Calculating risk demands a situation where potential outcomes can be thoroughly identified and their probabilities attributed. That only happens under controlled conditions or with very well known factors.
- Uncertainty is when the types and scales of possible outcomes are understood, but their probabilities aren’t. We might know a lot about floods but not be able to confidently predict all the ways that flooding will change due to climate chaos.
- Ambiguity is when, rather than the probability of outcomes being in question, we can’t agree on their meaning. What is a reasonable length of time to measure the health impacts of a new drug? What exactly should we measure? What should we ignore as insignificant? These are not purely scientific questions. They depend on the values and motivations of the people making the decisions.
- Ignorance: we don’t even know what we don’t know.
Each of these relate to our responses to COVID-19. I find it very helpful to keep them in mind, because it’s easy to get confused about what sort of not knowing we’re even talking about!
There is a level of uncertainty, ambiguity, or ignorance behind all decisions. We make our choice based on one interpretation of the data that we’re aware of. That’s all. Where we enter shaky terrain is in saying more than we’re able to without realizing it.
|There is a level of uncertainty, ambiguity, or ignorance behind all decisions. We make our choice based on one interpretation of the data that we’re aware of. That’s all. But the response to this uncertainty doesn’t have to be a wishy-washy fear to make a decision.|
The response to this uncertainty doesn’t have to be a wishy-washy fear to make a decision. The COVID-19 pandemic demands fast decisions (decisions that will be easy to second guess later on when we have better data). But it is helpful to be as precise as possible in acknowledging what we don’t know, and in adjusting our ideas as better data becomes available.
Whether on COVID-19 or any other important decision affecting large numbers of people, there are always trade-offs. One strategy to address them is another factor that I think divides how we feel about COVID-19 responses. Some of us prefer to take precautions, not acting until the situation is known to be safe. Others prefer to take action until there’s proof that the situation is unsafe.
An important question for each of us right now is this: COVID-19 has made it obvious just how interwoven our lives are. What beliefs, values, and behaviors will you spread?