Risk is inevitable in everything that we do. It is an inherent part of our lives, intertwined with every decision we make and action we take. Ordinary acts such as walking across the road or driving a vehicle involve risk. Yet, our usual safeguards make adverse consequences rare that we seldom think about the risks involved in everyday activities. We have become accustomed to managing everyday risk, often instinctively.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are having to contend with everyday risks we cannot easily evaluate. A previously straightforward decision of whether to leave the house or use public transport is now fraught with unknown peril. More than ever before, we are having to calculate simple everyday decisions to try and determine what is safe and what should be avoided. The threat of the virus looms over every choice we make.
Studies on the psychology of risk have shown that we intuitively respond with higher levels of anxiety in the face of unknown risks than familiar risks. This heighted anxiety is likely explained by the fact that we have an innate need to live in a predictable, orderly world that is in our control. Not adequately understanding a new risk – such as COVID-19 – makes it difficult for us to take precautionary measures to reduce risk thereby resulting in a perceived lack of control over our lives.
There is a lot about COVID-19 that we still don’t understand. Researchers continue to seek answers to questions such as: ‘Is a person immune after being infected?’ ‘Do facemasks prevent the spread of infection?’ ‘Why do some young and healthy people die from COVID-19 while the majority have only mild symptoms or none at all?’
In the face of all this uncertainty, we are having to weigh some risks on our own. When countries had strict stay-at-home rules in place, daily decisions about the risk of contracting the virus were simple. Now, as governments relax restrictions and countries reopen parts of their economies, decisions are more complex. The government may allow schools to reopen but should we allow our children to go? Is it safe to get a haircut or go to the gym?
There is always going to be some risk of contracting the virus as we go about our day-to-day lives. Personal protective measures including social distancing, avoiding touching our faces, and hand hygiene can reduce the risk of contracting the virus but don’t eliminate risk completely.
Here are a few important points to consider when managing risk outside the home.
1. Self-assessment: Start by conducting a self-assessment to determine if you are at higher risk for severe COVID-19. Based on currently available information and clinical expertise, older adults and people of any age who have pre-existing medical conditions are at higher risk. Other risk factors associated with COVID-19 death may include being male, uncontrolled diabetes, severe asthma, and being of Asian and Black ethic origin.
2. Risk level: Consider the level of risk associated with different activities – some activities are riskier than others. For example, gatherings of large groups of people in an indoor environment is considered high risk whereas exercising outdoors alone is relatively low risk. Key risk factors that make some activities more dangerous than others include distance to other people, type of activity, indoor/outdoor environment, and time spent in close proximity to others.