Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Taking risks in life

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The Rev. Ian Markham (Photo/Virginia Theological Seminary)
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Everyone has to take some risks. Going for a walk might involve a fall; getting in a car might involve a crash; and enjoying a flight might end in disaster. There is no risk free way to live.

Perceptions of risk vary considerably and are rarely accurate. The best illustration is the comparison between a car journey and a flight. The National Safety Council created an “odds of dying” table in 2008, which explained that the odds of dying in a car accident were 1 in 98 for a lifetime, while for flights the odds were 1 in 7,178 for a lifetime. Yet aviophobia, in an extreme form, impacts 6.5 percent of Americans, with an additional 18.5 percent feeling nervous about flying. Many of these people know the risks, but it doesn’t change their perception or feelings.

In a pandemic, all civic leaders and CEOs are juggling judgements of risk. And risk perception is key as we struggle with the issue of re-opening the economy. We are seeing public health officials borrow language from the world of investing.

For a long time, investment companies have distinguished between investors with a high risk toleration and others with a low risk toleration. If you have a high risk tolerance, then you are willing to take the chance of a substantial loss of the initial investment, while a low risk tolerance makes you a very conservative investor.

One major facet of reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic is the risk toleration of our employees, our clients, and our customers. When will people feel safe returning to work, restaurants, airports and the crowded Metro?

A person with a low risk toleration will want to wait until there is a reliable vaccine. They would want to know that close proximity to other humans is safe. One complication is that some people with a low risk toleration might also be nervous about the vaccination.

A 2019 Harris Poll for the American Osteopathic Association established that 45 percent of Americans are nervous about vaccine safety. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2018-19, only 45.3 percent of American adults received the annual flu vaccine.

If another 5 percent of the adult population had received the flu vaccination, then that could have “prevented another 4,000 to 11,000 hospitalizations.” So, even in a world with a vaccine, a low risk toleration person may still be nervous. They will be familiar with the 1976 campaign to mass-vaccinate against the swine flu virus which resulted in approximately 450 people developing paralysis – the Guillain-Barré syndrome. For some people, the world might never be safe enough.

A person with a high risk toleration is already confidently striding the world, ready to hug, shake hands, go to a restaurant and enjoy a game. For instance, 6 percent of Americans love extreme sports, such as paraskiing – where you jump from a high mountain wearing skis and light parachute – or BMX racing.

Built into their personality is a love of the adrenaline rush coupled with a sense that the worst is unlikely to happen to them. They obtained a motorcycle the moment they could, even though motorcycle deaths are 14 percent of all road fatalities. But they love the rush of the wind through their hair.

Public policy should acknowledge these two significant pressure groups. The large swath of humanity is in between these two extremes. They know that living involves some risk but would rather not take stupid risks.

Sure, 38,800 people died in car accidents in 2018, but I will still drive my son to school. We will make the journey wearing seat belts and driving sensibly and carefully.

By analogy, reopening policy needs to be equally sensible. We do go out of the house and go to work, but we wear masks when near people and physical distance. There is a via media here. We just need to find it.

The writer is dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary.

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