How Much Risk Should You Take Now?
My favorite word I learned during the pandemic was “micromort.” I discovered the micromort from a piece in the New York Times by David C. Roberts, which explained that a micromort is measurement used by scientists (and insurance companies) to calculate risk. A micromort, Roberts writes, is equivalent to a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Every behavior, whether it’s jumping out of a plane (seven micromorts) or giving birth (210 micromorts), has a value that can be attached to it. (Much of Roberts’ research can be found in the entertaining book, The Norm Chronicles.)
Life itself comes with inherent risk. Your odds of dying from something — and the micromort measures only odds of dying, not odds of becoming ill or seriously injured— increase anytime you do anything, other than stay in your house and watch television, on a regular basis. If you ride a motorcycle for six miles, you have increased your risk by one micromort. The same for driving 250 miles, or flying 1,000 miles. Certain activities that we accept as fairly normal aspects of a regular life carry much higher micromort counts than we might think. Riding a horse is about two micromorts. (It’s actually just as dangerous as doing ecstasy.) Going under a general anesthetic is worth five micromorts. You’re probably not going to die doing any of those things. But you’ve increased your chances.
The micromort, as you might suspect, had considerable utility in the early days of the pandemic. Every decision you made, you had to calculate your personal risk threshold. Contracting Covid-19 was estimated at 10,000 micromorts, roughly the same as climbing Everest. If you were above the age of 75 or you had a compromised immune system, your risk was 10 times that, 100,000 micromorts, which is “just slightly less than flying four Royal Air Force bombing missions over Germany during World War II.”
Thus, all moves you made in public or around other people thus came with their own micromort value. And this became increasingly complicated. How worth it was it to go to the store? To have drinks with friends on the porch? To have outdoor dinner at a restaurant? Every banal decision was fraught with risk and peril. But avoiding all those decisions didn’t help either. Sitting in your room by yourself and interacting with no one wouldn’t seem to increase your micromort number and was thought by some to be the only safe activity; after all, you can’t get Covid-19 by yourself. But, as we discovered as the pandemic went on, staying inside and seeing no one but your computer and cat for several months came with its own inherent risk, both socially and physically. The health consequences from so many people staying in place for so long — or, for that matter, having your only communication with the outside world be over Zoom or through Reddit — will take years to understand and unravel. Surely those are worth a fair share of micromorts, too?
When we were initially engaged in this micromort discussion back in the summer, we were all right in the thick of it — there didn’t seem to be any way out, and with the lack of any sort of federal response, figuring out how to manage risk was the only way we were going to survive the indeterminate amount of time we were stuck here. But even in that discussion, there was an understanding: If the government isn’t going to help us, someday, vaccines would. When the vaccines came, we’d be able to get our life back again.
But there are other ramifications of living through a pandemic, and one of them is losing track of what, in fact, risk really is anymore. The efficacy rate of the Covid-19 vaccines are incredible, a scientific achievement so unprecedented it borders on the magical. This is what we were waiting for! And yet, our risk-reward ratio is now completely out of whack. There are millions of people who are skeptical of the vaccine, as if somehow any side effect from it could possibly be worse than “contracting Covid-19.” But it’s not just them. There are still people who, after getting fully vaccinated (which, again, was the entire goal of all of this), are still afraid to rejoin life, even when it’s increasingly clear that it is safe to do so. (I had a fully vaccinated person tell me last week that she wasn’t going to the grocery store until “everyone is vaccinated.”) The brilliant science writer Zeynep Tufekci discussed this in her newsletter this week:
There is a phrase I’ve used a lot in the last year: “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.” It’s generally true and it’s an important corrective to a tendency we sometimes see in medicine and in science where a scientist or a press person states “there is no evidence that X causes Y,” when what they actually mean is that is that we don’t yet know if X causes Y. Maybe it does, maybe it does not. The phrasing is important because the way language works colloquially — how it operates in the world — means that “there is no evidence that X causes Y” uttered by scientists is heard by many people as “X does not cause Y.” (We also saw this play out when the suggestion that “no evidence that vaccines block transmission” got misinterpreted widely as “vaccines do not block transmission.”)
Is there a risk of a vaccinated person still spreading the virus? There is. But it’s an incredibly small risk, and getting even smaller by the day as cases continue to drop. (If all these vaccinated people were out spreading it, it’d be awfully hard for these numbers to keep falling so fast.) Still, a surprisingly large number of people seem to have decided that the only acceptable risk is “zero risk,” as my New York magazine colleague Jonathan Chait put it. But there is no such thing as zero risk. None. A piano could fall on your head tomorrow. Your television could electrocute you. Or, more likely, your resistance to rejoining society even when you are vaccinated is going to come with its own risks and damages. Or put another way: If you are going to be fully vaccinated and still not do return to any of the things you were doing before the pandemic… what exactly is the point of getting vaccinated again? What are we doing here?
The pandemic has messed with our brains in ways that will echo for decades to come. But, in its last stages, it continues to keep its hold onto many of us even as it fades, even as a vaccine has arrived that is actively pulverizing it. There is always risk in the world. People have to be safe. But they also have to recognize, particularly at the end, that Covid-19 is not the only risk we face. And when we’re vaccinated? It’s actually one of the smallest ones. The only thing on this earth that is zero risk? It’s death. All the risk is gone then. But we’re alive now. The Covid-19 clouds are lifting. Let’s try to see the sun.