How to gingerly reopen society
Without a cure or a vaccine, all our decisions are probabilistic.
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It occurs to me suddenly, the way something hiding in plain sight abruptly presents itself, that the most important concept for the coming weeks and months will be prudent risk.
The first two months of the post-Wuhan phase of the pandemic have been a mad scramble to understand what the hell was going on. We joked about everyone becoming an epidemiologist. But we really were trying to absorb the learnings of infectious disease experts to know how to keep our families, our employees, and ourselves safe. We grasped the concepts about social distancing. We hungrily read about how long the novel coronavirus survives on various surfaces. We memorized the symptoms of a disease that didn’t exist at Thanksgiving.
Now we’re starting to appreciate how little we know, experts and presidents alike. We still can’t comprehend why some areas are more affected than others. We aren’t sure what therapies will work. We have no idea when a vaccine will become available at scale. We don’t even know this thing’s mortality rate.
Instead we plunge ahead, gingerly reopening society, understanding that even trusted experts—let alone a president who won’t wear a mask—can’t tell us all the answers. In other words, we take prudent risks. It’s okay to play golf, but not to touch the ball-washing station. Curbside pickup at stores is fine, but don’t walk inside—even though it’s acceptable to visit Target and Home Depot. Eventually restaurants in coastal cities will reopen with restricted capacity. Maybe schools will do this too. And dormitories.
These decisions will be based on science, yes. But only the probabilistic kind. They are predicated on the notion that infections and deaths will continue, but at a level of risk we can tolerate. It’s the same argument anti-lockdowners made from the beginning about cars: We know they’re dangerous, but we drive them anyway.
Silicon Valley understands risk better than most places. Venture capitalists make a living risking other people’s money, often expecting only one in ten of their bets to work. Software makers in the connected era understand that if a product sucks before lunch, they can improve it before dinner. Uber figured out it could risk flaunting the law and build a multi-billion-dollar business anyway.
Prudent risk-taking rules the day. At least, let’s hope it is prudent.
This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.