Should You Leave Your Home Today?

The epic and mundane implications of a simple decision in Corona times

Should you leave your home today?

It’s such a simple Decision, isn’t it? Not to mention it’s one you’ve made every single day of your life. Sure, most of the time it probably appeared so trivial that you relegated it to your subconscious and made it automatically. It’s also quite likely that on most days you decided in the affirmative and left your home at least once.

But we all know things are different now. My point is not that our controversial friend, Corona, affects many aspects of your life. Everybody knows that from highly tangible personal experience and Covid-19 certainly needs no plug. My first point is that our current predicament provides you with the perfect opportunity I’m not sure you realized you had: the opportunity to take the most important step one can take.[1] Sure, sometimes that’s the first step such as when you really embrace the ‘first day of the rest of your life’ mentality and embark on a truly new beginning like the 14th time you quit smoking. And, on occasion, it’s certainly the next step.

The one I’m talking about is neither. It’s the step back.

If you are like most of us, you rarely, if ever, attempt to truly separate yourself from the perennially ephemeral and virtually omnipresent stream of your emothoughts and look at an aspect of your life, yourself, or a simple decision, with the aim to perform an honest deep critical analysis with real openness and the ultimate goal to learn and improve. Which is precisely what I invite you to do.

How did you make it?

Let us start with a moment of honesty. How did you decide whether to go out today? Before you proceed, please take a moment to think through your process. What did you consider, how, for how long, and when?

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(Just giving you time to think, which will almost certainly make what you get out of this article stronger. Here are two pictures if you’d prefer to stare at other people[1] think as you do so yourself.)

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Image credit: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unplash
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Image credit: Jason Strull on Unsplash

In the spirit of mutual honesty, let me describe the stream of consciousness that would’ve crossed my mind a mere few years ago, had I been forced to decide whether to stay at home or go outside during Corona times.

“God, I’m so fucking bored! … I need some bread, I’m almost out of bread, I also need a bunch of other stuff, but what? … I kinda think we’re not supposed to go out but what about all Facebook posts about hundreds of oblivious people walking around like assholes … I’ll just flip on my mask and I’ll keep social distance … I’ve been cooped up here too long I’ll go batshit crazy if I don’t get out … I can now recall 3 instances from today when I didn’t at all behave like myself … I mustn’t lose myself … I gotta go… let’s go.”

And that’s just the more or less verbalizable thoughts. In reality, I’m certain my thinking would have included a heavy dose of emotion (anger, fear, and self-glorification) and would have manifested as a lengthy iterative process interspersed with much distraction. Despite all that I definitely would have convinced myself that my choice was based on careful rational consideration. And it would’ve been easy.

Assumptions

Before we see components of a much better way of arriving at a decision, let me clarify a few assumptions. The following section only makes sense if we suppose that:

  • there are no constraints on the resources you can invest into this decision making process (you have enough energy and can take all the time you want);
  • no extraordinary circumstances put extra pressure on you, e.g. you have all basic amenities (lacking access to running water kinda changes one’s perspective on this sort of analysis);
  • you don’t know if you carry Covid-19 (say, you haven’t been tested in the past two weeks, if ever) and you’re not quarantined.

What should you to take into account?

So let’s see what would be a good idea for you to take into account when you make a decision like whether or not you should go out while the current pandemic relentlessly roams (y)our streets.

1. Laws and regulations

At the time of writing, regulations by federal (for those of you who live in a large enough polity to boast one), national, and regional/local authorities are in place in virtually every country all over the world. They apply to everyone, so it’s probably a good idea to take into account:

  • Who is permitted to leave their homes? In what circumstances? What constitutes a strong enough reason to do so?
  • How are these regulations enforced? Do the police patrol the streets? What are the odds that you will be stopped or pulled over and forced to explain yourself?
  • What happens to people found in violation of the rules? A fine? How much depending on what conditions? Could you face other consequences like community service or jail time?
  • How well-informed are you regarding all regulations relevant to you? Did you read or see official communication by relevant authorities or its reflection in vetted and reliable sources? Are you relying on stories you saw or data? How much of what you ‘know’ is based simply on what you heard from your family members, friends, or co-workers? Are you aware of potential recent changes regarding if and what restrictions have been lifted?

2. What are the odds that you’ll catch Corona if you leave?

There is only one way you can catch Covid-19: if the virus gets inside your respiratory tract and starts to multiply there. There are two major ways that can happen:

1. you inhale it from the air (e.g. if someone coughs or sneezes on you or around you); or

2. you get the virus from anywhere (including a hard surface) on something (e.g. your hand) that you then bring to your mouth or nose.

So all you need now is a way to calculate the probability of at least one of these two events occurring if you leave your home. It will most likely be a function of:

  • How many people will be around you close enough to infect you? Do you trust your own discipline to keep social distance?
  • What are you going to touch? How many surfaces where the virus may be with a reasonably high probability? (If you could use a more down-to-earth way to put this, think a grab bar in a crowded bus touched by dozens every hour versus a rock in your own backyard.) Do you trust your awareness and discipline to not touch your face before washing your hands?
  • What protective gear are you planning on wearing? Do you know how to wear it? Does it actually provide protection?

3. What can happen to you if you do catch it?

Now that you have an idea how likely it is to occur, the logical next step is to ask, what happens if you do catch Coronavirus? Let’s take this in two installments.

1. What are the possible outcomes of Covid-19?

By and large, there are four things that can happen if you contract Corona.

  • Death. If Covid needed no plug, what can I say about dying? That it’s a good idea to contemplate your own mortality regardless of your age or life circumstances if for no other reason than to find out where it leads you? Or, if you’re not willing to construct your own story, read that of someone else who happens to have written about it beautifully? Regardless of the spin we put on it, most of us probably agree that death sucks. And that it’s best avoided.
  • Severe illness requiring hospitalization and, in many cases, intensive care (e.g. you’ll need help breathing).
  • Mild to moderate symptoms resolved through hospitalization or observation and medication.
  • No to very mild symptoms (like those of the common cold).

2. If you do catch the virus, which of the four above mentioned brackets are you likely to fall into with what probability?

Let’s start with the hardest datapoint. What are the chances that you’ll die if you get the virus? According to the site everyone uses (Johns Hopkins), as of 10:15 AM EEST on April 30, 2020, the worldwide mortality rate is 7.1% (computed as total death toll/total confirmed cases; 227,705/ 3,195,316). This one doesn’t seem to leave much room for interpretation. And yet… it’s worth noting that this number merely reflects registered cases. Thus, it leaves out that have gone undetected, which could number in the millions worldwide. This means that the 7.1% estimate is most likely inflated and the real chance that you will die is significantly lower.

Despite the worldwide attention SARS‑CoV‑2 received, we are far from a consensus based on large-enough-scale peer-reviewed studies regarding the probabilities of the other three outcomes. Here’s a great summary for the more empirical-minded of you regarding asymptomatic cases. Based on the studies The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine reviewed, the ratio of asymptomatic cases varies from 0% to 80% depending on which study we take as our reference points.

In addition, there is another factor that makes it difficult how severe your case would be if you contracted Corona. The above are worldwide general numbers and you’re special, right? Actually, in this case that’s kind of true. Several variables have been identified with a significant impact on Covid-related outcomes:

§ age — while it’s misleading to characterize Corona as an exclusively old person’s disease; the elderly are at a much higher risk of dying from it;

§ preexisting respiratory conditions like chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma;

§ obesity and its good friend and companion, diabetes;

§ chronic kidney or liver disease;

§ smoking;

§ a compromised immune system (e.g. due to an autoimmune disease like HIV).

In addition, the quality of care you expect to receive probably matters a great deal and being poor has never helped anyone survive so we may comfortably throw your socio-economic status into the mix as well.

Of course the main question is: how do you take this information and convert it to odds, especially given that the outcome is not a yes/no question (like will you get infected or not) but a scale/gradient question (how sick are you going to get)?

This is an exercise that does NOT come naturally to us, humans. From a social scientific standpoint, the best place to start would be with a regression model to see how much of the variance of the outcome (how sick will you get) can be explained by each of the identified variables. And that’s just a start! We could make our model much more sophisticated by using AI-driven machine learning techniques.

It is undeniably good exercise to think of most matters in life this way. Even if you’re uncertain of your answers (an unsettling but very useful state of mind) just thinking through the questions and trying to come up with estimates can help you tremendously. But this is not an intro to social science article so let’s stick to a few basic points.

If you’re an old, severely obese, diabetic, chainsmoker who has AIDS and can’t afford high-quality care you’re much more likely to develop severe symptoms and even die than your spring breaker neighbor, the 22-year-old fit social drinker with 5% body fat and no history of any disease. Does that mean Brad Ignoramus Privilegous is safe? No, he’s not, but it IS true that the chances that he’ll die if he contracts Covid-19 are quite low (although it is certainly debatable if a 0.1% chance is worth the risk).

4. Other risks of going out

Going out means exposure. It’s not that you’re not exposed to anything at home (think fire, gas leak accidents, or domestic violence); but there’s a lot of stuff that can only really kill you if you set foot outside, like accidents or other humans with guns. Despite what you may gather from non-Corona media, the odds of these have steadily decreased over time. If you don’t believe me, read one of my favorite books, Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (2018). His highly data-driven arguments notwithstanding, if you’re in an accident or even catch a totally unrelated disease that can kill you, there’s a much higher probability that it will do so today than a few months ago. Why? Simply because the Corona pandemic and its collateral consequences put extra pressure on healthcare providers and their employees. This is disproportionately true in places with a lot of patients requiring intensive care and/or with generally low level of preparedness.

Let me close this rather long review of things to consider with a rather fundamental question we can phrase in many forms. We’ve already established that your basic needs are met. So why would you leave your home? What is your motivation? What was (were) your reason(s)? What do you need?

Let me try to read your mind. I bet at least one of the following was among the reasons you went out yesterday:

(I need to)

Ø buy stuff

Ø meet people (e.g. your family) in general or attend a special event like a wedding or birthday

Ø work

Ø exercise

Ø go out because I can’t take it any more

Did I cheat there? Of course! These are among the most common activities humans engage in, all of which reflect potentially very real and tangible human needs.

The thing about needs that immediately threatens to engulf any discussion in the conversational equivalent of a burning hot pool of quicksand is that they’re inherently subjective. While the above four points in this section are up to interpretation but ultimately quantifiable, your needs aren’t. At least not by someone else. Nobody can come in and tell you that your needs are wrong, irrelevant, or unimportant.

So I’m merely asking you to do one thing as you make your choice: consider how real your needs are.

Let’s start with one of modern humans’ favorite activities: buying stuff. Are you on the verge of starvation; are you running out of nutritious ingredients; or is your mango yoghurt count getting dangerously close to half a dozen? Moving on to other needs, does your work really necessitate leaving your home? Is it impossible for you to work from home or merely inconvenient? Must you go out to work out? Have you fully exhausted at-home exercise options like calisthenics, yoga, stretching, bars, or even weights? If many professional athletes manage from home, do you really have to go for your favorite bike ride?

It’s probably also a good idea to take a page out of every young child’s playbook and use a fragment the extra time that landed in your lap to dig deeper into the well-known yet vastly unexplored never-ending why-chain by simply asking: but why do I need that? What do I really want? Even merely dipping your toes in the topwater of that rabbit hole can help you discover interesting things about yourself.

Part of why this prospect isn’t usually appealing is that in normal times most of us regard at least some of our needs and likes/dislikes integral part of our identity. Thus, your whole core could be threatened by the highly uncomfortable realization that you can live without most things you considered essential for a considerable amount of time. If I can very easily go two months without the chocolate chip cupcake of my favorite coffee shop and it hasn’t crossed my mind in weeks (whereas I’d think about it daily before), where does that leave me?

Changing what you think about yourself and your needs is not something the vast majority of homo sapiens sapiens like to do often, if at all. Yet, arguably the greatest advantage of humans is that we’re flexible, adaptable. Your needs can and do change and you have more control over them than you’d think. So don’t let them dominate you, at least not without your real and informed consent.

It’s an especially good idea to beware of motivations that make you feel good, sound very legit to say to others, and give you that cozy feeling that you’re doing the right thing, which often seamlessly blends into something you MUST do (even if you didn’t see it that way until the last second). Let’s consider a handful of these in one go.

You feel the light breeze of the sunny spring midday wind on your face and, as if they suddenly and finally albeit temporarily learned to discern your state of mind, your lungs fill with something far more precious than air: FREEDOM! You’re pulled by an invisible force, as if a higher power gave you permission, no, compelled you, to be exactly where you are and go exactly where you’re headed. And what a wonderful place that is: you’re on your way to see your family whom, despite your conflicts and differences of opinion, you love more than anything. There’s nothing you wouldn’t do for your family and no virus, no pandemic, no government, nothing can keep you away from them now when they need you more than ever!

And it just feels so wonderful to be out here in the sun! You suddenly realize with mounting terror just how close the monotone, bleak, dreary, drab sameness of everything came to making you stare down into the bottomless abyss of sheer utter madness … but no horror or trepidation has the slightest chance to endure out here. With nothing to sustain itself on, your emotion quickly fades under the sun like writhing worms plunging back into their dark depressions following a light midsummer drizzle. Your spirit, the very core of your being, is liberated from the depths of fear and anguish and anxiety and worry … and your soul SOARS. Nothing can contain you and your true and free human spirit! The glorious power of defiance courses through your veins as you weep fiery tears of joy. At long last after what seems like a lifetime of suffering and crushing sorrow you’re finally FREE!

Too epic? Sure. Could you relate to it, though, at least a little bit? I certainly can. There’s nothing inherently wrong with epic stuff and I’m a huge fan of its many incarnations from music to books and movies, as long as they also boast intellectual merit. At the same time, I hope you’re better than me and don’t let such emothoughts influence your decision making process. At least for the most part.

Here’s a very incomplete list of questions one could ask. Is this really the only or the best thing you can do for your family right now? What if you infect them or get infected and get through it without a problem but then randomly sneeze on the cashier who serves and infects your grandfather? Were you really staring down that abyss or did you just make that up on the spot? Freedom is cool and all but should you let it trump all the other considerations you so painstakingly gathered?

Ω Outro

So should you leave your home today or tomorrow? That is entirely up to you. All I’m asking you to do is think twice. Or three times. The choice is yours.

If next time you make it in a slightly more aware fashion, there will have been a point to reading (and writing) this article. And if you find a moment in the ocean of current events and million pleasures, facts, considerations, experiences, plans, and memories, to take a real step back and think about what you take into account when you make decisions (along with how your choices affect and are affected by others¹), we will all have won.

[1] This article is the first in my series aimed at analyzing the social and political implications of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020. In the next one I’ll analyze how being a part of groups and communities changes one’s perspective on the same decision.

A political scientist (Ph.D.) and social psychologist (MA) fighting for a better world the only way I know how: on the battlefield of idea(l)s.

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