The Delta Variant Has Warped Our Risk Perception

What was remarkable, for all the confusion of last winter, was how relatively simple that consistency was to find. In part, that was because the Ibasho residents all believed in a common set of facts and numbers based on scientific consensus: The virus spread through the air, masks and ventilation worked, being outdoors was better than not. With those assumptions shared, a surprising number of situations—a grocery store run, an outdoor barbeque, a day at the office—could be encapsulated with relatively few parameters. By the springtime, the roommates were still tallying up their risk points (for personal accountability, and because the level of freedom fluctuates with the local case rate). But Catherine Olsson, the project’s de facto leader, told me the rubric had helped her internalize what was safe. She knew, for the most part, what her hopes and needs for each week were, and what sort of points they would cost. Pandemic risk had become passive.

That was before this summer’s whiplash, before vaccines appeared to mean the pandemic was over, until it wasn’t. The math is more confusing now, a little harder to intuit. Delta and rising case rates make every activity more “expensive,” because transmission is higher. But being around other vaccinated people also offers a discount, because those people are less likely to have an active infection (and, potentially, to transmit the virus, though the latest data on that is fuzzier). And as the Microcovid team explains in their July update, getting vaccinated also means a bigger overall budget, because the risks of death and hospitalization are so much lower. The question is how much bigger should our budgets get?

Setting a baseline budget has always been tricky. It’s important, because all the activity calculations revolve around it, but it is also the least grounded in statistics. “It really is about feelings,” Olsson told me at the time—as personal as it is scientific. For Ibasho, an initial budget of 10,000 microcovids per week was drawn from discussing how they felt about their personal risks and risks to loved ones, as well as a sense of global responsibility—that they could not live outlandishly because they also contributed to transmission of the virus beyond their pod. Variants and vaccines haven’t changed those factors, even if the balance between them has shifted.

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I wasn’t at all sure how I felt about my budget. I hadn’t used Microcovid personally outside of my reporting. As a relatively cloistered young adult with one partner and no kids, it just wasn’t pressing to get my risk affairs in order. But this week, feeling jarred by the sudden return to restrictions, I decided to do some calculations on the Microcovid website. I entered in my activities from the previous few weeks: the unmasked errands, the dinner parties at home, the dance floor. (The last, as I ticked up the number of undistanced participants, eventually blared back a code blood-red: “DANGEROUSLY HIGH RISK.”) So would I do it all again next weekend? At current case rates, definitely not. Then I began making adjustments: Adding masks (required now indoors in San Francisco, anyway), reminding myself that an indoor party could probably still happen outside, cutting out the clubbing and remembering that eliminating a few big risks could help me feel better about taking extra smaller ones.

There’s a sad sum to those calculations: that life, in August 2021, is not about living in the moment, but about the sum total of our experiences. It’s about reframing the risks of a global pandemic into a series of street crossings, not setting them out of mind like satellites buzzing harmlessly overhead. That’s hard to take more than 500 days after San Francisco’s initial shelter-in-place order—to be typing life’s pleasures into a calculator and tabulating the damage, and acknowledging that one’s possibilities have limits. But it felt like a healthy practice, laying it all out. And maybe it would hasten a return to living more freely. I had kept my budget restrictive because cases in California are climbing fast, but I also knew that, as a vaccinated person, I would loosen it somewhat when this surge ebbed, as it eventually will. We will be living with viral risk for the long term, and with precautions against it. For me that life will include getting low once the case counts do too.


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