Uncertainty in Times of Coronavirus
A man holding his mobile phone walks past a poster by Italian urban artist Salvatore Benintende aka "TVBOY" depecting Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa wearing a protective facemask and holding a mobile phone, Barcelona, Spain, February 18, 2020. (Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images)

Uncertainty in Times of Coronavirus

Al-Etihad, UAE, March 12

All that can be said about the novel coronavirus has already been said, and I will not add anything to it because I cannot, as I have no real answers. But like you, I also have a lot of questions. Like you, I’m trying to balance long-term profits with the short-term costs. I’m trying to think of my own safety, as well as the safety of society around me. And I need help differentiating between what is dear to my heart and what I think will benefit others. I need help to make informed guesses about events with major consequences, how others will behave, and how institutions will react. In this regard, economics tends to provide us with useful frameworks to think through difficult questions of tradeoff. After all, it is the science of decision-making under constraints and uncertainties. I live in New York City, which is a large and diverse city. Not owning a car here is a sign of freedom; not having a washing machine at home is the status quo; living very close to others is of the essence. It’s a place with freedom and flexibility, but this flexibility may come under pressure when people begin suspecting that the person sneezing next to them in line for coffee might have coronavirus. When do we give up our daily necessities? When do we reduce our exposure to others? At what point do we all agree that our individual benefit isn’t work the collective risk we’re posing on our community? It seems as if the responsibility of reducing transmission is on our shoulders. I remember a sleepless night in 2014 when the Thai army decided to stage a coup while my wife and newborn baby were in the middle of a flight to Bangkok. I didn’t know what would happen once they landed. Thankfully, it ended well: even the Thai rebels realized that destabilizing the tourism sector would be a dangerous idea, and allowed tourists to travel freely. In contrast, coronavirus does not follow this kind of logic. It will disrupt and destroy anything in its path. Sadly, people have been consuming false news that pushes them to respond in irrational ways. This, perhaps, is what concerns me most: the fear of not knowing how misinformation might spread around the world, and how people, and governments, might react to it. – Gernot Wagner (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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