Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Risk, Reward, and COVID

Risk, Reward and Covid

“See you on the other side”, has been my most frequent sign-off line in telephone calls and e-mails over the last 4 months. ‘After Covid’ was defined, in my head, by the ‘Coming of the Vaccine’. 

With the Coming of the Vaccine would come noisy parties, festive evenings of music and dance, packed theatre evenings in tiny basements, inter-continental flights to meet loved ones. All the cherished fluff of affluence.

It’s not shaping up that way. ‘During Covid’ will be a long time in whatever tunnel you’ve decided to traverse. What I’m  hearing is that the first vaccine, when it comes, will be “probably more like a flu vaccine (40%?) versus MMR (97%)”. *

Will I have myself vaccinated? I’m not sure that’s the right question. Instead, the question may be, If I do get myself vaccinated, how much will I change my behaviour, if the effectiveness is only 40%?

Not much, really. I won’t go to mass gatherings, or indoor restaurants. Till there is more scientific data on in-flight droplet transmission, I won’t board an airplane except in a family emergency. In the last 100 days, the only home I have visited is my sister’s. I know her family has been extremely risk-averse in engaging with the world; even so, when I visit, I insist we leave the windows open, and run the fans. With a vaccine in my butt, or wherever they choose to administer it, I might expand my social ambit to 2 or 3 more homes, but I still wouldn’t attend business meetings-in-the-flesh. 

I haven’t been to a retail outlet in 4 months, and with Big Basket and Amazon ticking along nicely, I see no hurry to get off my couch. Except for early morning cycle rides, where I decided early on that outdoor transmission of COVID seemed highly unlikely. I make a weekly trip to an abandoned quarry, where we swim beneath open skies, watched by chattering, starved monkeys, and the occasional airplane. It’s a bit of a drive, but we brave the hot afternoons with the windows down, and our masks on. But once we park, and begin the rocky descent to the water hollow, masks are off, and we rejoice in the outdoor socialising.

I am sure there is some risk in each of the activities I do. ‘Zero risk’ does not exist. Before Covid, I drove on India’s highways, with the highest accident rate in the world, trekked in the high mountains, and swam in oceans. In everything we do, we balance risk and reward. Reward, clearly, is individual: for many, sleeping in a cold tent night after night is a penance; for me, it is a portable home in the majesty of nature. Risk, too, bends to the individual, to his knowledge and skills.  You get butterflies in your stomach watching a tightrope walker tiptoeing between two sky-scrapers, but his years of training and focus have lowered his risk of falling to near zero.  Risk also responds to the march of technology. Thanks to better air traffic control and safety protocols, the risk of death by flying has dropped 100 times in the last 50 years.

And so it will be ‘During Covid’. Drug cocktails will improve, treatment protocols will get better tuned, convalescent plasma will be produced at pharmaceutical scale. A vaccine that is even 40% effective will take us a long way towards herd immunity. Perhaps the virus will gradually lose its sting, as we have seen with other corona viruses. The era of ‘After Covid’ will dawn on a different day for you and me, as our individual risk perception falls below the threshold of concern. 

Till then, we will each find our balance of risk and reward, our unique balancing act. Some of us will stumble on the path, as we do on the longer road of life. 

That is in the nature of being mortal.



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