Physical Distancing is inconvenient

An imagined conversation with my Dad

“It’s all bullshit. I refuse to change my behaviour. I had three restaurant meals last week and the places were full.”

Photo by Quentin Dr on Unsplash

OK, interesting. In project management there’s a thing we do called a risk assessment. Can we do a thought experiment here?

Let’s say you were infected with SARS-CoV-2. You’re fine, you’re just carrying the coronavirus.

“I don’t care if I get sick.”

Yep, yep, I know. But for the sake of discussion let’s say you were capable of infecting other people. OK?

1. How severe would the consequences be if you infected someone else?

“But it’s all bullshit. I’ve been around other people and I’m not sick.”

Yeah, we’ll get to that in a minute. For right now let’s talk about consequences if it did happen. You’ve seen the stories. We have actual evidence of what happens to people when they get sick with COVID-19. How severe is the worst outcome?

“Less than 1% of people die. More people die each year from the flu.”

OK, so the worst possible outcome is death?

“Most people don’t even show any symptoms.”

What I’m trying to do is separate the likelihood from the severity. So just sticking with severity, what I’ve seen is that people have been getting really really sick and can’t breathe and need oxygen pumped into their lungs, and it’s so bad they think it’s the tube in their throat that’s the problem but it’s actually all the fluid in their lungs. It sounds absolutely horrible, and then some people die.

So, purely from a “how bad could the outcome be” perspective, if you infected other people how bad would that be from 1–10?

“OK, I’ll play along because it’s all bullshit. Cancer would be a 10, this is a 7.”

Great. Now the question you’ve wanted to get to:

2. How likely is it that this would happen?

“On that cruise ship there was 3000 people and only about 200 of them got it. That’s less than 10%.”

OK, fine, we’ll go with your assessment because I know I won’t change your mind with expert opinions and evidence. You believe what you believe.

Out of 10, how likely is it that you could infect someone else without you feeling sick.

“1 out of 10. It’s so unlikely to happen.” blah blah climate change greenies media blah.

OK, but we’re not done. We still have two questions to go.

Remember, the scenario here is that you’re infectious and don’t know it.

3. How effective would mitigation strategies be?

Let’s say, staying at home except to walk the dog and buy groceries. When you come across someone on the footpath you move across to let them keep their distance, instead of forcing them to walk onto the road to avoid you. Not standing right next to people at the traffic lights. Not going to a restaurant.

“They’ve closed all the restaurants now. Bloody overreaction.”

Mm-hmm. So let’s say you can spread the virus, and you minimise contact with other people as much as possible. How effective would that be in preventing you from infecting other people?

“But other people have it. Me staying at home wouldn’t change anything.”

And how many other people’s behaviour can you control? For right now let’s keep the difficulty level fair and keep the focus on you.

“Fine. Well, it’s all bullshit. As if me staying 1 metre away from you will make any difference. I’m not licking from other people’s water glasses.”

Yep, like you said it’s only a 1 out of 10 likelihood that it will happen. We talked about that.

So what if you stayed away? If the virus is transmitted by water droplets and touch, and you stayed far enough away, and for the sake of argument we said that the likelihood was already 1/10, do you think that would reduce the likelihood to zero?

“It’s all such bullshit.”

Let’s assume, because that’s what we are seeing evidence of from other places, that this reduces the likelihood of infection.

Now, important final question.

4. How much effort would it be to mitigate the risk?

So far we have said that the potential consequences are a pretty horrible 7 out of 10, the likelihood is 10%, so for every 10 people you get close to only 1 of them will get sick…

“And only 1% of them will die, which is much fewer people every year than smoking or the flu or driving.”

Mm-hmm, nearly there. And if you stay away from people for a month or so that would reduce the likelihood to even less, let’s say you instead infect one in 50 people… how much effort would that be for you?

“Look, this is all bullshit. They said global warming would come and it’s only 22 degrees and it’s practically Summer. Y2K was supposed to make planes fall out of the sky.”

Sure. But you have what you need at home. You have wine, a dog to keep you company, and lots of WW2 movies to watch. Do you really need to go out in the next month? Is it that much effort to stand a bit further away from people so they feel comfortable even if it’s all bullshit? Just in terms of the cost to you, how bad would that be on a scale of 1–10?


I work with startups, teach entrepreneurship, and freelance in improv and leadership coaching.

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