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Making Decisions in a COVID-19 World

Published time: 04 June 2020

Authors: Baruch Fischhoff, PhD

Keywords: politics, strategy, Covid-19, mask, risk analysis.


The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic poses difficult interdependent decisions for professionals and the individuals they serve. Professionals must answer questions such as: When should clinics, schools, salons, meat-packing plants, movie theaters, and other entities open? When should they close because of proven, possible, or perceived problems? When should they be reopened?

Individuals must answer complementary questions. When is it safe enough to visit a physician’s office, get a dental check-up, shop for clothing, ride the bus, visit an aging or incarcerated relative, or go to the gym? What does it mean that some places are open but not others and in one state, but not in a bordering one? How do individuals make sense of conflicting advice about face masks, fomites, and foodstuffs?

Risk analysis translates technical knowledge into terms that people can use.1,2 Done to a publication standard, risk analysis requires advanced training and substantial resources.3 However, even back-of-the-envelope calculations can help individuals make sense of otherwise bewildering choices. Combined with behavioral research, risk analysis can help explain why reasonable people sometimes make different decisions.4 Why do some people wear face masks and crowd on the beach, while others do not? Do they perceive the risks differently or are they concerned about different risks?

Decisions involving COVID-19 risks pose 3 questions that the professional community must answer, and then communicate its answers. Making that happen will require both scientific and institutional innovation. People are hungry for answers, and if the professional community does not provide them, others will.

Making Decisions in a COVID-19 World



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