Reopening Society Requires Minimizing Risk, Uncertainty

gathering information by testing for and tracing covid-19 is key to containing its spread, experts say

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Ending COVID-19 lockdown measures early or indelicately could be a big problem, NPR reported. Many measures must be taken to prevent extensive loss of life before we reopen the country. Facing uncertainty wisely means minimizing risk.

Crowds of people in the street
Public health experts caution that ramped up measures must be taken for testing, tracing, and isolating as lockdowns begin to open up. Photo by Aleksandr Ozerov / Shutterstock

According to NPR, health experts have come to a general consensus of five key elements to ending coronavirus lockdowns and returning to normal life. They are improving rapid testing, massively upgrading contact tracing capacity, creating systems to isolate the sick and protect the vulnerable, building up hospital capacity and the personal protective equipment supply chain, and zeroing in on effective treatments. So what does this all mean?

“Among public health leaders, the mantra for stopping coronavirus from surging is ‘test, trace, and isolate,'” the article said. By testing people in large quantities, finding out where and how they contracted the coronavirus, and keeping them from being in contact with others, they believe the disease spread can be slowed dramatically. This philosophy towards the unknown is closely tied with that of a business.

Collecting and Producing Information

Much of the discussion surrounding the coronavirus involves getting more people tested for it so organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) can better understand how far it has spread and who is at risk. In business, companies face uncertain futures in the same way also, by collecting and producing information.

“Every piece of information we produce reduces uncertainty, at least a little bit,” said Dr. Connel Fullenkamp, Professor of the Practice and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Duke University. “And when I say ‘produce information,’ I mean that literally; we have to expend resources such as time, effort, and money to gather information and then process it into a usable form.”

Dr. Fullenkamp said people have a tendency to gather data in any and every quantifiable form. Retail businesses generate sales numbers, hours worked per store, items sold per transaction, the average dollar sign of each transaction, and so on. He said this is because we have a fascination with numbers and facts—and they can tell the future.

Data as a Crystal Ball

“This natural fascination with data helps people deal with risk,” Dr. Fullenkamp said. “When we compare numbers or data in any form—especially pictures—we notice patterns. And these patterns help us make inferences about things that we don’t yet know, and probably can’t ever know fully. But we can make better guesses about what will happen in the future by using patterns in the data.”

In the three-step coronavirus prevention mantra, “test, trace, and isolate,” collecting information about the disease spread comes in the form of testing individuals and tracing the spread back to its origins. Using these data patterns can help us isolate the sick and those at risk, which can help secure a safer future. However, this idea is nothing new. Dr. Fullenkamp pointed to mapping the stars in ancient Egypt for a similar example.

“In Egypt, astronomy was used to predict when the Nile River would flood,” he said. “In that civilization, flooding was the make-or-break economic event each year, similar to the arrival of the monsoon in India. Gathering accurate information about the movement of the stars and planets helped reduce uncertainty about when to plant the crops.”

Having information leads to better decision-making. In the case of testing and tracing individuals suffering from COVID-19, it can lead to saving lives.

Dr. Fullenkamp is Professor of the Practice and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Duke University

Dr. Connel Fullenkamp contributed to this article. Dr. Fullenkamp is Professor of the Practice and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Duke University. He earned his undergraduate degree in Economics from Michigan State University and his master’s and doctorate degrees in Economics from Harvard University.