We bought three seats on an airplane to North Carolina in May, four seats returning. We didn’t add an extra person, but my son Jack turned 2 during the trip, meaning he could not ride on my lap for the three-hour return flight to Denver, where we live.
Still, the fares weren’t that expensive either way. Air traffic is down 90% as people, sane ones at least, avoid any “nonessential” travel during a pandemic.
Maybe we weren’t so sane after a couple of months of quarantine with young children because we decided to fly anyway.
My husband, a hospitalist, served several weeks this spring on COVID-19 services, donning a Darth Vader-esque mask and coming home to a “decontamination” routine. He mentioned that treating COVID-19 patients required heavy “System 2” thinking or critical thinking. It’s the kind of thinking that will absolutely wear you out.
Apparently, people in the medical field talk about System 1 (applying things we already know) and System 2 thinking often. It’s good to have a mix: Maybe you have mostly patients with normal ailments, but you have a couple complex cases, like those frequently depicted on TV, that spice things up for your brain.
COVID-19 came, and at least at first, said, “To hell with System 1!” The novel virus required constant operation in System 2 mode — not just for doctors but for everyone.
As parents, we carry a heavy mental load even absent a pandemic, as we answer thousands of questions daily such as “Mom can I…have another cookie?…go to Brian’s house?…stay up late tonight?” We constantly make choices like these.
This spring, many questions became harder. “Mom, can we go to the playground?” Well, shoot, I don’t know. Will we pick up a deadly virus there?
Finally now, after getting used to sharing our world with the new coronavirus, my hope is that we can move some of these tough questions from System 2 to System 1. To do this, we need to develop a risk-benefit framework.
First, consider that risk is a product of probability and consequence. Sometimes risk propositions are only high because one of these variables is high: Have unprotected sex once and your probability of becoming pregnant is low, but boy, the consequences could be very high. Sometimes it’s the inverse, where probability is high, but the consequences are low — like when I let my children drink from cups without lids.
Our view for our family is that our probability of getting the virus is high. Anyone who’s been around toddlers knows they have a penchant for floor-licking. My husband, working at a hospital, is at a relatively high infection risk. But the probability that we face a high consequence (death or serious long-term health impact) from infection is low for us, a family of two healthy adults and two small children.
Of course, with COVID-19, we have to gauge risks to others as well. On our recent trip, we visited our boomer parents but also three grandparents (great-grandparents to our children) all in their 80s. A COVID-carrying child could literally deliver to them a “kiss of death.”
That’s where the other side of risk-benefit analysis comes in: the benefit part. My grandmother wanted us to come. She echoed Esther from the Bible: “And if I perish, I perish.” After all, what is the alternative for her? Avoid all physical contact with her family until a reliable vaccine is widely available? A vaccine is perhaps still 12-18 months away, or more. No one is promised one more day, much less 365-548 days.
So if you are like our family, and you’re struggling with choices about your summer vacation, a visit to grandma’s house, or even your local public playground, my nonmedical advice is to develop your own risk-benefit framework for these choices.
I felt a great weight lifted when we took our recent trip, and not just because Jack was no longer riding in my lap. I felt like the exit from the secure part of the Raleigh airport was the finish line of a marathon spring, wherein as a mom and medical spouse, I had been carrying my family for a long time. My children ran to my mother-in-law, and, after pulling her mask down to make sure it was really her, jumped in her arms. I would have hugged her too, you know, if not for the circumstances.
Hadley Heath Manning is the policy director at Independent Women’s Forum.