As I write this, 100,000 motorcyclists are descending on a tiny South Dakota town for the 80th Sturgis Rally. According to early reports, mask wearing and social distancing are almost non-existent. This highlights a facet of the evolving coronavirus landscape: there’s no right or wrong, only more or less risk.

“In a good spot”

A survey showed that over 60% of Sturgis’ 6,900 residents wanted the rally cancelled for fear of creating a ‘super-spreader’ event. Yet the rally, which usually pumps $800m into the South Dakota economy, went ahead.

Governor Kristi Noem tweeted that the state was “in a good spot in our fight against COVID-19” and welcomed the bikers. Current statistics on coronavirus deaths per capita in US states rank South Dakota at 38th.

The impact of the rally remains to be seen. Bartender Jessica Christian observed, “It’ll be interesting to see how that turns out.”

Risk assessment

Stephen Sample, 66, weighed his chances before riding to Sturgis from Arizona. “I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to be cooped up all my life either.” Sample acknowledged his decision “could be a major mistake.”

Here Sample is conducting a risk assessment—an analysis of the potential up- and downsides of a situation. A risk assessment concludes with choosing one of four basic actions:

  1. Avoid—don’t go to Sturgis
  2. Transfer—get someone else to take the risk
  3. Mitigate—go to the rally but use social distancing
  4. Accept—go to the rally as normal

Sample couldn’t avoid, transfer or mitigate the risk of coronavirus without sacrificing what was most important to him—personal freedom. In other words, Sample valued freedom over the risk of catching and even dying from the virus.

This is Sample’s risk profile. We each have our own profile according to what we value (or fear) more or less.

Reservations

On the reservations of the Great Sioux Nation, the risk profile is quite different.

Although the numbers are comparatively small, the Sioux tribes have been badly affected by coronavirus. Consequently, the Cheyenne River Sioux have erected checkpoints to prevent Sturgis-bound riders crossing tribal lands. Federal and state authorities say the checkpoints are illegal, which tribal leaders dispute.

It’s just the latest wrinkle thrown up by the virus, which increasingly pits those concerned by physical loss against those concerned by psychological and economic loss.

Natural selection

Those who support lockdown rules, masks and social distancing see the bikers’ attitude as irresponsible. It’s bad enough they’re endangering themselves and unnecessarily burdening the medical system. Worse yet, they’re recklessly endangering others.

A Facebook meme doing the rounds suggests they are merely proving Darwin’s law of natural selection: they’ll die from the virus and remove themselves from the gene pool. Problem solved.

Is that true? Will natural selection favour those who remain homebound in fear and anxiety over those who refuse to be cowed by the virus and whose immune systems can withstand the emissions of 100,000 Harley-Davidsons?

Fight or flight

In defence of the bikers, it’s clear that lockdown is pushing more and more people towards impulsive ‘fight or flight’ behaviour. In May, a security guard at a store in Flint, Michigan, was murdered after legally refusing entry to a customer without a mask.

This is just one example that made the headlines. Of more concern are signals that suicide attempts among both the elderly and children have climbed during lockdown.

A report by Britain’s National Child Mortality Database revealed 25 suicides during the first 52 days of lockdown, compared with 26 in the preceding 82 days. Lockdown was thought to be a factor in 48% of cases. While the numbers are small, they suggest lockdown is exerting a growing pressure.

Unknown territory

One thing is certain: coronavirus risk assessment is unknown territory.

Coronavirus risk assessment is unknown territory. How do we balance personal freedom against the risk of super-spreader events?

How do we balance personal freedom against the risk of super-spreader events? Or the physical risk to the vulnerable against the psychological risk to children?

What about the “If I catch it, I catch it” attitude of partygoers against the long-term effects of normalising lockdown, social distancing and masks? Do we risk creating a society where every face-to-face (should that be mask-to-mask?) interaction is fraught with danger?

Life involves risk. We each have our own risk profile, and behave accordingly.

To conduct an effective risk assessment we must view a situation from every angle—particularly those we’d rather not look at. Amid the fog of coronavirus it seems clear we’re going to learn to pay more attention to risk.

Image: Rain Gear by Tim Vrtiska on Flickr

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MICHAEL H HALLETT

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