04 November 2020 | One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is just a statistic. Attributed to Joseph Stalin (1878 – 1953)
We've been pretty well confined to barracks because of that nasty little covid thingy. This forced isolation means that I spend far too much time on the internet reading gripping page-turners such as 'Effect of covid-19 co-morbidity rate on viral load' and then squatting in a corner hugging my knees and whimpering pathetically. This shameful display of a total lack of moral fibre is interspersed with periods of low keening and sotto voce renditions along the lines of "We're all going to die" and "I want my mum."
This unedifying, and frankly embarrassing, display of spineless cowardice contrasts unflatteringly with Liz's Panglossian outlook. She approaches this whole covid debacle with a far more sanguine and positive attitude. Liz's view on the pandemic and its likely implications for mankind in general, and us in particular, is measured, optimistic, positive, and life-enhancing.
Those last two words constitute an unprecedented sally into marital discord. Our domestic harmony usually exceeds even that of Bert and Ethel Sprout, the eight times winners of the annual Darby & Joan competition in the Weston Super Mare Mechanics' Institute. This unusual state of affairs is a result of a domestic contract which has been in operation since 1973*. It succeeds because it is simple, being founded on just two basic rules:
1. Liz is always right.
2. It's always my fault.
This is further clarified by a codicil added in 1976, namely:
If rule two fails, see rule one. And vice versa.
The reasons for my failure to adhere to our contract in this matter are fourfold, and they all call into question the validity of Liz's Pollyanna mindset:
1. Availability Bias.
It is hardwired in human psychology to give disproportional weight to experiences that are vivid and personally close. No-one close to us has, as yet, suffered severely from an infection of covid, let alone died from it. As a result, we tend to think that the risk is less than it is.
2. Wishful thinking.
Wishful thinking is the formation of beliefs based on what the subject wants to happen, rather than on evidence, rationality, or reality. It is a product of resolving conflicts between belief, and desire. We all do it; it's just that some people, in some circumstances, do it more than others. Trump supporters do it more than everyone else combined.
3. I've done the maths.
I know, I really shouldn't have, but I was bored. Some of the input data regarding relative probabilities were almost certainly little better than informed guesses, but I reckoned that the end results were probably within an order of magnitude of reality. The picture that emerged showed that risk was distributed very unevenly.
No Shit, Sherlock.
That in itself is, of course, no great surprise. A miscellany of factors, genetic, environmental and personal, affect the distribution of risk within a population. What surprised me was the degree to which the risk was skewed. The possible outcomes for a patient infected by covid range from no sign of the disease whatsoever to dead, and all points in between.
The most common factors affecting the severity of the disease are, (in order of influence, greatest to smallest):
Age : Older is worse, by a long margin
Sex : Nearly twice as many men die than women
Obesity : Influence kicks in if body mass index > 30 (ish)
Morbidity : Having one or more other diseases/conditions at the same time.
Genetics : Life's great lottery. Choose your parents well.
Previous exposure : If you've fought off a virus with similar surface proteins it may help, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.
Blood group : O is good, A is bad. Don't ask me why. I've no idea. No-one else has either. Groups AB & B sit on the fence reading The Guardian.
A superficial glance at the above confirms that they all have one thing in common - there's absolutely bugger all that a patient can do about them. Any of them. Well, OK, he could lose some weight but apart from that he's totally incapable of having any serious influence on the progression of the disease. Get enough of those factors in you and you'll be spat through the process pronto. Home quarantine > ambulance to hospital > in-patient in isolation ward > supplementary oxygen > intensive care > ventilation> bye-bye in a box. If you're very lucky you may, just, avoid the dead stage and merely end up chronically disabled. That's a lucky turn-out isn't it.
I'm a 71 year old male with comorbidity of two other conditions, one cardiac and one neurological. I'm also blood group A, just to put the tin hat on it. I'm not mentally prepared for this coming over all dead business.
As a result, we come to item four:
4. I'm now more scared of the virus than I am of Liz.
Just. It's a close-run thing.
Fear not, though, brave heart. I may be powerless to fight the little sod once I've got it, but I can nip things in the bud by not getting it in the first place. This is made difficult by its sneaky little trick of being asymptomatic (but still transmissible) for about five to ten days. It is impossible to tell whether your friendly shopkeeper is infective (other than by sticking a giant cotton bud up his nose and halfway into his ethmoid sinus). So, the obvious stratagem is to treat everyone as a foetid bag of infected dingo's kidneys unless proven otherwise.
The consequence of this sort of thinking is near total isolation from as much of the rest of humanity as is compatible with getting the essentials of life such as gravlax, Pouilly-Fuissé and gluten-free quinoa. On the surface this seems like a price worth paying - vastly improved chances of personal survival versus having to forego the dubious pleasures of social intercourse with the ex-pat community's finest examples of the ramifications of combining in-breeding with heavy alcohol consumption and frequent exposure to the Daily Mail.
It is here, though, that we meet an evolutionary snag: Homo Sapiens is a social species. This is hardly surprising, given our far from impressive size, musculature, teeth, and claws. One of us on his own has no chance of bringing down a woolly mammoth for breakfast and even less chance of avoiding being an hors d'oeuvre for a ravenous cave bear. We get round this by using our large brain, and the language it enables, to act in concert as a group. This social interaction is so important to human survival that our psychology has evolved to actively crave it. Although there are a rare few hermit-like misanthropes who can cope quite happily with just their own company, most of us will start to suffer serious mental problems if deprived of human contact for any significant length of time. That's why solitary confinement is judged to be a cruel and unusual punishment. Not as cruel as an oubliette though.
This leaves us with a dilemma. In fact, it leaves us with a dilemma several times a day. How do we choose between the social & psychiatric benefits of human interaction and the possibility, however remote, of a lonely, drawn-out and agonising death? There is also the added complication that it doesn't matter how many times we successfully ward off the depredations of the virus, the little bastard only needs to penetrate our defences once and it wins.**
All of which self-indulgent rambling brings us to the finale - the trade-off. This constitutes a personal, subjective balance between the odds (how likely you are to win or lose) and the stakes (how much you are likely to win or lose). And this is a high-stakes game; at least on the losing & being dead side it is. In theory, choosing the least bad option is a precise and accurate mathematical process. To find the average expected gain or loss you multiply the odds by the stake. Then compare the two outcomes and go for the best. In reality, it is vague, of dubious accuracy, and about as reliable as a solemn promise from Boris.
So, after all those thirteen hundred words of wishy-washy liberal indecision, where have we got to? Back where we started is the short answer. We end up, as we began, making a decision based on emotion and rules of thumb rather than reason and evidence. In the end it comes down to basic personality traits - are you a glass half full or a glass half empty sort? What sort of a poker player are you? Do you go confidently for the pot, or do you try to limit your losses?
As you have probably guessed by now, I am of the loss-averse persuasion. And as for Liz, well let's just say that I don't intend to play poker with her in the foreseeable future.
* We met on Saturday 25th February 1973. This contract was unilaterally imposed the following week. Liz decided to get her pre-nup in early, just in case.
**It's not an unusual strategy, as is evinced by the chilling statement made by a senior figure in the IRA in 1984. The Brighton Hotel bomb killed five but failed in its main aim of killing Margaret Thatcher.
"Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always."