Some Thoughts on Coronaviruses and Seatbelts

Hope is not a strategy.

— James Cameron

A prescient article titled “Body Count” by Epsilon Theory/Ben Hunt (@epsilontheory) was recently sent to me by one of my smartest and most connected friends. 

It paints a spooky picture of the Chinese reports of what has been informally referred to as “Wuhan coronavirus.” Per the WHO this week, the official virus name is SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes is COVID-19, much like HIV causes AIDS. Here is one portion from this essay (edited for length), and I suggest reading the entire piece:

From a narrative perspective, China is fighting this war against nCov2019 exactly like the US fought its war against North Vietnam. … They convince themselves that the people can’t handle the truth, particularly if the truth ain’t such good news. They convince themselves that they can buy enough time to win the real-world war by designing and employing a carefully constructed “communication strategy” to win the narrative-world war. That strategy proved to be a social and political disaster for the United States, as the cartoon tail (gotta get more NV casualties for Cronkite to report) ended up wagging the policy dog (send out more counterproductive search-and-destroy missions). I think exactly the same thing is happening in China. And I think the social and political repercussions will be exactly as disastrous.

Once again, read the whole article here.

Next, here’s some personal background that might be relevant: during previous international scares involving avian flu, Ebola, SARS, etc., I did not panic or move into a bunker. Once I felt I understood the data related to each, I more or less went about my life as usual.

I am not panicking this time, either. That said, I am curtailing unnecessary travel and group interactions for the next 2–3 weeks to see how things shake out, particularly given the asymptomatic “incubation period” of up to 14 days. 

Might that be an overreaction? Might I be misinformed? Totally. But then again, how many head-on car accidents have I had? Zero. I nonetheless put on my seatbelt every time that I drive, and we have great data on traffic fatalities. Do you have a fire extinguisher in your kitchen? Would you accept $100 to get rid of it? $1,000? I wouldn’t. As unlikely as a kitchen fire may be, the extreme known consequences of an out-of-control fire easily justify a fire extinguisher, even if it gathers dust forever. It’s cheap disaster insurance, just like having emergency stores of water in the garage.

Even though some folks think of me as a “risk-taker,” I self-identify much more as a “risk-mitigator.” Whether in the context of my nearly 100+ startup investments, scientific research I support, or otherwise, I think about risk a whole lot. This includes misperception of risk, cognitive biases, and so on. I also have extremely good access to reputable sources.

I dislike the unknowns of SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, no treatment has yet proven effective, and—like putting on a seatbelt—it’s easy for me to mitigate a lot of downside risk until more data paint a clearer picture. Videos like this (hat tip to Naval Ravikant) lead me to think that metaphorically wearing an eight-point harness for 2–3 weeks isn’t the worst idea. As of Feb 13, 2020, the comparisons I’ve seen to influenza aren’t totally compelling for at least one of the following reasons: 1) the numbers cited are simply incorrect, 2) they assume we have equally longitudinal/reliable data for both, 3) they assume recovery and treatment are equally known for both. From The New York Times today:

There remains deep uncertainty about the new coronavirus’ mortality rate, with the high-end estimate that it is up to 20 times that of the flu, but some estimates go as low as 0.16 percent for those affected outside of China’s overwhelmed Hubei province. About on par with the flu.

We simply do not know at this point, and “knowing” is often a spectrum of probabilities based on data.

Many people will lambast me for spreading panic, but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m pointing out what I consider a massive asymmetrical bet related to health. In a case like this, it’s better to prepare and not need, than to need and not have prepared… especially when some precautions are so simple and so cheap.

I am constantly looking for such “seatbelts” in many areas of my life. Dead-simple ways to cap some or all of the downside risk.

If COVID-19 turns out to be a false alarm, or if it doesn’t turn into a full-blown catastrophe in the US, many people who ignored the news and didn’t change their routines will no doubt say, “I told you so.” I’ve already been called an “alarmist” by a few folks.

But am I?

Am I an alarmist for wearing a seatbelt? For having fire extinguishers? Few would say so. And those are games of near-complete information. Common influenza would also fall close by.

If those are similar to chess, our current situation is more like backgammon. Plenty of moves are still up to Lady Fortune.

I would argue that my decision-making framework related to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19—especially given the unknowns—is sound at the time of this writing. Looking backward, I believe my process will still be sound, considering the data we do and don’t have at this point in time. 

And here’s the important part: This is true regardless of outcome.

For more on all this, I suggest reading Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by poker champion Annie Duke.

Last, you know what is much scarier to me than COVID-19?

When people vehemently “know” things that they simply cannot know.

And scarier still?

When otherwise smart people veto their structured thinking because they have inconveniences or incentives (money, work, business travel, etc.) that lead them to search for disconfirming evidence. 

That’s when really big problems become inevitable.