Choices in a Time of Viral Disease

Release time: 2020-03-16 13:37

Choices in a Time of Viral Disease

Some guiding principles.

The most recent coronavirus disease, COVID-19, is currently at the forefront of many people’s lives. The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and local health authorities have been sharing valuable information on how best to protect yourself, your family, and the broader population. This is a time of many important decisions at multiple levels, and we can help ourselves and others by keeping some general principles in mind.

1. Seek relevant information from reputable sources. These may be different from your favorite news or social media source or personality. These may even be different from those in general positions of authority. As this is first and foremost a health issue, turn to respected and evidence-based health authorities, practitioners, and scientists. Favor those who have a mission and track record of working to protect the public, independent of other influences (economic, political, and more). The WHO and CDC, along with state and local health agencies, are likely some of your best resources that are as accurate and up-to-date. Be especially skeptical of sources that are seeking to promote or sell a product.

2. Learn from the experiences of others. Individuals and governments of cities, states, provinces, and countries where cases of COVID-19 have only recently emerged can benefit from the experiences, approaches, and consequences of places that saw the earliest cases, such as China, South Korea, and Italy. To think that a given community or country is exceptional and uniquely able to withstand the biological, psychological, and behavioral patterns seen in other communities and locations is in most if not all cases wishful thinking.

Those communities fortunate enough to have the benefit of a later onset of COVID-19 should seek out and capitalize on the valuable information and range of example actions and consequences available to chart their course, remembering that in general the virus, the human body, and human thinking and behavior operate on largely similar principles regardless of location and culture. In general, people do not like uncertainty and it can lead to less than ideal decisions and actions. Scenario planning is helpful yet it depends in many ways on what one is able to imagine. There is less uncertainty and less to imagine here than we might think.

3. Aim to be realistic about risk. Reasonably accurate risk assessments can be very useful in guiding effective decisions and actions, whereas drastically underestimating risk can lead to inaction whose effects can be tremendous (e.g., many public health experts have provided evidence and models that taking appropriate action even one day earlier can have large effects) as can overestimating risk (e.g., hoarding that, while it may help to provide some sense of control, in fact, denies basic necessities to others and puts excessive pressure on suppliers and their personnel; this includes sanitizing and other supplies needed by the very hospitals, doctors, and nurses on the front lines of treatment). Realistic risk assessment is one step in helping to ensure that resources are distributed sensibly.

4. Consider everyone. Even though you and your family may be at relatively low risk based on your age and lack of pre-existing conditions, you may infect others who are at much higher risk. Limit your interactions with others not only for your sake but for theirs. Take that larger humanitarian responsibility seriously. Think, too, about other ways in which you might help those at higher risk or with fewer resources, being sure to consider the range of resources that people may need and want. Funds, transportation, delivery of groceries or medication, access to reliable and accurate information, and/or someone to talk to are only some of the ways in which you might be able to help others.

5. Seek balance. It can seem that no matter where you turn you are confronted with the coronavirus and COVID-19, whether it’s the topic of conversation on the news and social media or its impacts are being felt in aspects of daily life such as grocery store lines and school closings. Aim to take action in ways that you can (e.g., via the CDC and WHO recommendations for social distancing), but also seek some windows of both normalcy and joy where you can. Maintaining some previous routines and/or establishing new ones can be helpful, as can finding the positives (e.g., more family meals, perhaps), and helping others in the ways that we can.

Social distancing is a key emergent recommendation of the above principles. In most cases, it’s the best decision both individually and societally. At the same time, it does not have to be our only form of individual and collective action in this challenging time. Let’s think creatively about what is possible.


Karen Yu, Ph.D. Warren 

Craft, Ph.D., MSSW

Choice Matters

Karen Yu, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South. Warren Craft, Ph.D., MSSW has taught Psychology and Mathematics as a visiting assistant professor at Sewanee.

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