Is accelerating in front of a blind bend the right way to deal with uncertainty?

By Martin Michaelis and Mark Wass. The discussion about our approach towards COVID-19 is largely a dispute about how to deal with uncertainty, due to all the things that we do not know. However, the approach that we take is not the one that most of us would take, if we were driving a car.

In the UK, formal COVID-19 restrictions have been removed, but the discussion about whether this is a prudent approach is ongoing. People in favour of abandoning restrictions argue around the lines that we have to get back to a normal life at some point, that vaccinations have changed the nature of the pandemic, and that further disease and deaths by COVID-19 are inevitable but will not reach the scale of the height of the pandemic.

People in favour of a more cautious approach argue that there is still a risk of a COVID-19 wave that can overwhelm the healthcare system. For example, Israel is suffering another COVID-19 wave, although it is one of the countries with the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates. The country has just re-introduced restrictions and started a booster vaccination campaign, in which double-vaccinated individuals receive a third jab. In some US States, hospitals and intensive care units are once again overwhelmed. Moreover, high numbers of infection are associated with an increased risk that new, dangerous virus variants emerge that are not covered by the immunity provided by current vaccines and previous infections. If this happens, we will need to start our fight against COVID-19 more or less from scratch.

Both supporters and sceptics of the removal of restrictions have one thing in common. They do not know what will actually happen. Nobody does. This is illustrated by current infection numbers. Most experts had anticipated them to reach around 100,000 new cases per day. Although the numbers are high, between 30,000 and 40,000 new cases daily, this large peak has not (yet?) materialised. Now, there is a dispute whether and how much the situation will worsen, when school restarts. Moreover, autumn is approaching, which is associated with more indoor activities that favour the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).

Although no-one can predict the future and no-one knows what would be the best approach towards COVID-19, our approach can be informed by how we approach uncertainty in other situations. The problem with large complex problems like COVID-19 is that they remain largely abstract, in particular when we are not directly confronted with the impact of the disease but are suffering from the restrictions. Nevertheless, very simple comparisons may sometimes help. If we are driving a car and are approaching a blind bend, we are also confronted with uncertainty. We do not know whether the road is free or whether there is another car, whether there are pedestrians or cyclists on the road. There might even be a fallen tree blocking the road. This is why most of us slow down in front of a blind bend, in a real-life situation of uncertainty.