The Biggest COVID-19 Risk Lesson? Don’t Ignore Uncertainty

By: | April 17, 2020

John (Jack) Hampton is a Professor of Business at St. Peter’s University, a core faculty member at the International School of Management (Paris), and a Risk Insider at Risk and Insurance magazine where he was named a 2018 All Star. He was Executive Director of the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS), dean of the schools of business at Seton Hall and Connecticut State universities, and provost of the College of Insurance and SUNY Maritime College in New York City.

Some 250 years ago, Benjamin Franklin warned us that, “In this world, nothing is certain except death, taxes, and the seasonal flu.”

Or, at least, that’s what I think he said.

We can’t verify the quote. None of his contemporaries are alive today. They paid their taxes and then died.

Scientists know a great deal about contagious viruses. The World Health Organization tells us about contagious viruses that cause mild to severe acute respiratory illness.

Every year the world experiences, in the language of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza-like illness.

The CDC pays attention to a fever 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) or higher, accompanied by a cough and/or sore throat. This standard is used for viral infection surveillance worldwide.

Viral infections can attack animals as well as humans. They mutate constantly. People, particularly those with underlying health conditions, can die from them. They tend to shut down seasonally, but don’t count on them doing so.

Whatever the strain, we shouldn’t fool around with viral infections.

  • 2009-2010: 61 million Americans had the swine flu. More than 12,000 died.
  • 2017-2018: A very bad season in which 45 million Americans suffered from a viral infection and 60,000 died.
  • In a more “normal” 2018-2019, viral infections attacked 35 million Americans and contributed to the death of 35,000 of them.

In spite of the regularity of viral infections, we just don’t seem to get the real risk picture. In relatively quiet years, they conduct their inevitable killing with little notice. Occasionally, an outbreak makes the news for a few weeks in the winter. Then, we forget about them until the annual September reminders to get flu shots.

In this context, the 2019-2020 COVID-19 virus may be doing us an unwelcome and painful favor. It reminds us of a fundamental weakness in our psyche. We manage risk. We ignore uncertainty.

Even worse. We mishandle a cruise ship the size of a small city. It becomes a floating “petri dish” that fosters incubation and transfer of a virus.

The common cold is a risk. We can identify it and rely upon it. A person will get two or three colds a year, presenting with a runny nose, sneezing, headache and fever. With minimal care, symptoms will last a few days to a few weeks. Life resumes.

Viral infections are an uncertainty. We don’t know what they will do in their most-nasty mutations.

Consider an unexpectedly bad outbreak in the middle of nowhere. Wuhan, China, just to pick a random place. We sit back and ignore distant danger.

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Even worse. We mishandle a cruise ship the size of a small city. It becomes a floating “petri dish” that fosters incubation and transfer of a virus.

The term “viral event” comes from virus, as in spreading the flu.

A viral event can be good or bad. Internet postings can uplift us, bully us, or deceive us. We’re pleased when some things go viral. In other cases, we’re disappointed.

Good risk management demands flexible responses to viral events. One positive outcome from the COVID-19 trauma would be to remember this lesson in other risky areas of our lives.

I lied. Ben Franklin did not warn us about the flu.

The guy went out and flew a kite in a thunderstorm. Maybe he didn’t really know that much about risk management or uncertainty. &

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]