Risk ToleranceThu, 26th Nov '20, 4:45 am::

Many of my friends are aghast at the absolute lack of precautions millions of people are taking with respect to Coronavirus. At the same time, I know many people who are going about their lives with or without masks convinced that the pandemic fears are overblown. It is hard for people to reconcile with the actions of their polar opposites because everyone is judging everyone else based on their personal level of risk tolerance.

People who have health issues cannot comprehend how others can be so callous about hanging out in large groups. People in good health, especially those under 35-40, do not feel the need to put their life on hold for another 6-9 months, when they don't have much to lose if they get infected. If you think wearing mask is a binary choice - either you wear it properly or you don't, then it is impossible to tolerate people who do the opposite from you.

However, if you rate your adherence to wearing mask on a scale of 1 to 10, then you might find you are at a 7, not 10. Which means you are close to a 5 mask wearer than a 10. Add 1 point for each criteria below to see how strictly you stick to wearing masks properly. The list gets harder to adhere to with each criteria (think earthquake Richter scale):

Chirag's Mask Adherence Checklist:

  1. I wear a mask whenever I leave my house
  2. I make sure my mask is tightly sealed around my face, over my nose/mouth, and does not fog my glasses
  3. I will not eat inside a restaurant
  4. I will not enter a business if more than 5 people are in a 10'x10' area
  5. I do not order drive-thru fast-food or eat outdoors at a restuarant
  6. I wear a mask even if I am alone in my office or anyone comes to my house
  7. I use masks with filters and change them as per guidelines
  8. I sanitize my hands after adjusting or touching my mask every single time
  9. I don't use cloth masks, only professional ones like N95
  10. I double-mask using two different types of material (N95 + surgical, or surgical + cloth with filter)

The problem with wearing masks is that nobody is going to be 100% on each of these conditions at all times. If you absolutely do 100% of the above at all times, congrats on winning 2020. But I'm going to be honest here. I rate about 4-6 on this, depending on how my day is going. I could try to do more but realistically I just can't. Things are hard enough as it is. Juliet's probably 9-10 on this, Naveen 2-3, Leela 0. So we have four people in our house with four different mask adherence scores. And this is just mask, let alone all other things like washing hands, not touching your face, maintaining social distancing etc.

This year has been tough. We're all trying to do our best as per our personal level of risk tolerance and abilities. I am closer to Naveen's level of adherence of most days than Juliet's. Does that mean I don't care about my wife's health? Absolutely not. It simply means I am different from her and as long as I do the top 4-5 things on this list, my risk is greatly reduced. Juliet cannot afford to get infected so she does nearly all of this. I can absolutely understand why some of my friends who are a 6 on this scale get frustrated at people who are a 3. But by the same token, Juliet at 9 should go ballistic on me at 5 but in truth, the risks are not proportional to the effort necessary.

Wearing a mask properly whenever you are in public is good enough for most people. Double-masking N95 + surgical is probably only 1-5% better than wearing a properly fitted cloth mask with filter. But it is a lot more work to wear two masks. So sticking to the top few items is usually good enough. The real problem here is that everyone who is a 0 (i.e. completely avoids wearing a mask) thinks anyone who wears a mask is expected to do all of the 10 requirements. And most people who wear a mask think anyone a point or two below them is a total 0. People who are 0 could be more easily persuaded to get to 2 if they weren't expected to get to even 3. Similarly people who are at 6 could temporarily relax to 4-5 as needed, without seriously increasing their risk, e.g. going to see a doctor or dentist. Too many people are avoiding routine healthcare this year but in many cases that is much riskier, especially if they have issues like high sugar, high blood pressure etc.

There's not much I can say to the people who think they are 10 and everyone else is 0 or vice-versa. There is already a ton of political chicanery on this topic and emotions are running hot. However, I can say to the people between 1-9 that you are not as perfect or imperfect as you might assume and neither are people who are different from you. We all have a different set of life factors affecting our personal level of risk tolerance. If you're worried about getting the disease, raise your level temporarily and see if you can adjust. If you're having a complete breakdown due to isolation, temporarily lower your level a bit and see if it that improves how you feel. There is no "correct" level of adherence except what you decide for yourself.

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