One of the things I find most fascinating (and personally relevant) about this pandemic is how each individual judges their risk of contracting COVID-19. As a rule, human beings are terrible judges of risk in today’s world. Our risk assessment ability evolved at a time when risks were pretty straightforward: Is the tiger chasing me? RUN AWAY NOW or die. We’re not well equipped to decide whether flying on an airplane, eating Thanksgiving with family members, or going for a walk with a friend could infect us with an invisible disease that can take up to two weeks to manifest itself — if it manifests any symptoms at all.

Over the course of the pandemic, Ian and I have had a number of opportunities to interact with people outside our “bubble.” These have presented some of the most difficult, acrimonious, and fraught decisions we’ve ever had the misfortune to make as a couple. While we both fundamentally agree on the importance of following the state guidelines*, you could drive a truck through the ambiguous gaps in those guidelines. We each fill those gaps with our best judgment of the risk presented by the activity, and very rarely do we initially agree.

Lately we’ve had some particularly difficult decisions to make around helping family, where state guidelines and our personal risk tolerance directly conflict with needs of elderly family members. Helping would mean breaking the state’s recommended 14-day travel quarantine, but under what circumstances is it worth taking that risk? How do we balance the values we hold dear of helping people, and particularly helping family members who desperately need it, with the risk of spending time with people who have recently flown but show no symptoms?

If we decide in favor of family, we not only spend the next two weeks anxiously assessing every sniffle and cough, but it raises more questions: Should we then quarantine ourselves for 14 days, since we aren’t sure if we were exposed or not? Are we exposing other people to risk they don’t feel comfortable with?

At the same time, a health issue with my parents meant a surprise ER visit. There’s not much information online about the risk of spending time with people who recently visited the ER, so we consulted the doctor’s office. “It’s the same as if you flew on an airplane,” they said. “You’d need a 14-day quarantine after visiting the ER.”

What I’m slowly coming to is not judging other people for their decisions, but trying to understand the reasoning behind the decision. (Okay, I judge people who think COVID is a hoax. Everyone ELSE I’m trying to have more empathy for.) I assume everyone is making decisions that are logical and reasonable to them. I need to understand their logic before I can truly judge. What seems obvious to one person — “the rules clearly say, ‘after an ER visit, quarantine for 14 days’” — to another person may be less compelling than other life circumstances — “I have a very sick relative who won’t get food if I don’t bring it to them.” Everyone is weighing their risk tolerance with the exigencies of the rest of their lives and trying to make decisions balancing them.

Not judging doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of people within a household disagreeing on which activities do and do not present excessive risk. But it does provide a foundation for communicating around divisive decisions: Listen, empathize, and understand. It’s a start.

*Since we lack cohesive federal guidance, and our state has competent, science-based leadership, we look to the state first. Maybe this will change in January 2021.

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