The Delta Gamble: Misunderstanding Risk

I’ve never been much of a gambler. I don’t remember ever buying a lottery ticket; the odds just seemed so absurdly bad. From what I understand, it is almost impossible to win at roulette at any casino; it’s the odds again.

Blackjack is another matter; with enough reserve cash, a lot of skill, and some luck, a few folks win at the game. There are professional gamblers out there who actually make a good living. But if they win too much, the casino bans them from returning.

The risks of severe illness or death from being infected with certain viruses is an entirely different matter.

The Delta Dilemma: A Fairly Simple Choice, or Not

When confronted with a major health risk, most people try to avoid exposure. That is not a big decision in itself, although taking all the right steps might not be as easy. Yet, some folks may allow all sorts of extraneous factors to intervene. Inconvenience is a big one; many people today have not had to face significant inconvenience in their routines for many years, even the less than pleasant ones. Habit is a powerful force, far more powerful than most think.

Another confounding factor that can interfere with a realistic choice is the perception that the needed behavior is not what one’s closest friends or family are doing. This is especially true when they assert ideological objections that might cause one to have to argue against the convictions of close associates. The new science of social networks has demonstrated the importance of network connections is far greater in changing behavior than either information or the persuasion of “influencers.”

Apparently rebellious objections to “establishment” guidelines urging people to social distance or wear a mask may contradict what might otherwise seem common sense self-protection practices. This is where propaganda can influence personal behavior leading people to do self-destructive or other-destructive things.

Now we face a trend-countering predicament. Just as the CDC issues new guidelines approving relaxed public health precautions, and many people believe that the COVID pandemic is “over,” the Delta variant overtakes the others by spreading more effectively and causing more severe illness and death. That is not what people want to hear.

Cities all over the nation are lifting COVID restrictions right and left. Many have already cancelled all restrictions as their rates of infection continue to drop. But in many other places, restrictions are lifted even as new cases and hospitalizations begin to rise because of the power of the Delta variant. More important, these are in areas of the country where vaccination rates are low, in part because of the politicization of what should be a basic public health strategy. In those areas, the spread of infection and the rates of hospitalization are looking more and more like the beginnings of a new surge.

In these areas, mostly rural states in the south and the mountain west, where politics is conservative, resentment of the so-called “deep state” is highest, and the value of scientific knowledge is restricted to agriculture, not personal behavior. Nevertheless, viruses, like physics and chemistry, are completely indifferent to political interpretations of public health recommendations as well as risky personal behavior.

Choosing Life or Gambling with Death

When statisticians evaluate risk of particular choices in relation to probabilities of outcomes, they usually talk of two kinds of possible error. Sometimes, the risk of a negative outcome is very high, but the damage of that outcome if one loses is relatively minor. In such cases, it may be quite reasonable to take the risk, especially if the reward for doing so can be great and the damage if one loses the gamble is minor.

On the other hand, if one gambles on a situation where the risk is death or some very horrible outcome like permanent disability or loss of one’s entire life savings just before retirement, then the rational person might hesitate to take the risk, especially if the reward is trivial. Even if the probability of the negative outcome is very low, the potentially extreme consequence of losing the gamble makes the risk too dangerous to take. In other words, the risk/reward ratio sucks.

However, humans have a long history of acting in ways that entail a risk of catastrophic consequences, even when the possible reward is minor. As the risk of infection by the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus increases, many people are too caught up in their happiness that “the pandemic is over,” to continue taking precautions that kept them safe before the pandemic began to subside. They risk a lot to avoid a minor inconvenience.

Epidemiologists Understand Risk: Do You?

I hear rumblings from epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, that the danger of a new outbreak of the pandemic may be imminent if we let down our guard, in particular because of the power of the Delta variant to spread so easily. This is especially true in areas where so many have refused or neglected to get vaccinated. We shall soon know who will pay the ultimate price for making a bad bet.


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