Theology, philosophy, math, science, and random other things

On the coronavirus

I'm not in healthcare or public health, but I do analyze data for a living. Things like probabilities, managing risks, and statistics are my bread and butter. I've been tracking the data on this coronavirus thing for some time now, using multiple sources of data, and calculating the risk to my personal life and health.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. This week (starting 3/9) is the first week when my personal risk will become unacceptably high for me. Furthermore, this risk will continue to increase at an incredibly rapid rate, (very) roughly doubling every 4 days or so.

"Unacceptably high" doesn't mean that I expect to drop dead this week. It just means that it's distinctly higher than the other risks that I would take without thinking, like driving.

But even while driving, you take basic precautions, like wearing a seat belt, and making sure that you're not sleepy or drunk. Right now, for me, going out in public without precautions is about as dangerous as driving. It's probably distinctly worse. And getting riskier very rapidly.

This risk is calculated for me personally - taking into account things like my age and health, who I interact with, where I live and work, etc. It may not directly apply to you. But soon enough, it likely won't matter. If you live in an area with a known infection, the exponential growth of the virus means that it will quickly catch up with your personal threshold as well, in a matter of days or weeks.

This doesn't mean that anyone should panic, of course. You wouldn't panic over someone not wearing their seat belt, or lighting up a cigarette. But you'd clearly agree that these are bad ideas. And, again, the risks here increase exponentially with time. Soon enough it will be like getting in a car with a drunk driver. Without a seat belt. On a stormy night. For a drag race.

For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, this means that now is the time to act. And I don't mean that as a platitude, in the "no time like the present" or "seize the day" sense. I actually mean that now - the week of 3/9 - is the time when you should start to significantly change your personal behavior, beyond just washing your hands and not coughing on people. Before this week, it wasn't irrational for a private citizen, concerned only with his own health, to go about his day normally. As of this week, this is no longer the case. This is the week that the risk becomes actionably meaningful.

Again, for now, this doesn't mean that everyone needs to be locked into their houses right away. But week by week, the magnitude of the required precautions will increase significantly. If we were to implement zero precautions, we'd be looking at the "complete shutdown" scenario in a matter of a few weeks.

Regardless of where you are, your risk will increase until the outbreak is contained in your area. For now, the only way to do that is for enough people to take enough precautions. As a population, the longer we wait the more dramatic and painful these "precautions" will need to be, up to and including a complete shutdown of your city or region, like they did in Wuhan.

I'm continuing to go to work, and continuing with most of my daily routines for now - but with lots of extra precautions. My current rule of thumb is that I'll take any precaution that's easier than putting on a seat belt. I'll probably start working from home fairly soon - I'm running the numbers daily to see when that is. If you want to see the math, I'd be glad to go over it with you.

But in any case, take this thing seriously, and stay calm, safe, and healthy.

You may next want to read:
Basic Bayesian reasoning: a better way to think (Part 1)
The intellect trap
Another post, from the table of contents

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