Coronavirus: how to cope with uncertainty

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

The coronavirus crisis shows us a number of ways to deal with uncertainty.  But dealing with uncertainty is easier with practice and a bit of structure.

‘Are you refusing to shake hands?’ My friend shakes his head.  ‘This whole coronavirus thing is overblown.’

It is 4 March. Austria has only a dozen new cases of coronavirus per day, but neighbouring Italy is suffering hundreds.  It will be another twelve days before the Austrian government implements one of the earliest, and strictest, lockdowns in Europe to try and control the pandemic.

Neither my friend nor I really knows what is happening.  We both take information from whatever sources we can, and come to different conclusions.

Wearing an obligatory facemask in the Vienna metro

Twelve weeks later I meet my friend again.  In between, Austria has had around 16,500 known coronavirus cases and 668 deaths.  He grins.  ‘Are you still refusing to shake hands?’ he says.  It is as if nothing has changed.

The unprecedented nature of the 2020 global coronavirus pandemic generates unprecedented uncertainty.  Here are some things we don’t know:

  • will a vaccine be developed?  If so, when?
  • when will we be able to fly again?
  • will things ever “get back to normal”?
  • does catching the virus make you immune?  If so, to what extent and for how long?
  • how likely are you to catch the virus?
  • if you catch the virus, how ill will you be?
  • what will the economic impact of the virus be?  How will this affect you?
  • if we reduce social distancing and live more or less as before, will we face a second peak?
  • what are the risks of reopening schools/pubs/theatres/sporting venues?
  • why do some countries seem to suffer more than others?
  • how should you personally adjust your behaviour?

Making decisions in these strange circumstances is difficult.  It isn’t as if leaving your home will almost certainly result in your death, as in the creepy Sandra Bullock movie Birdbox.

The situation facing people in “Birdbox” is worse than coronavirus

But coronavirus is like the situation in Birdbox in that it reminds us that every single moment of every single day, with or without coronavirus, we are making decisions about keeping ourselves safe, in the face of uncertainty about the future.  Coronavirus increases that uncertainty.

Here are four ways you can cope with uncertainty:

(i) accept that you can’t control everything.  You never could before, and you got this far, right?

(ii) consider good outcomes.  We all tend to worry about what could go wrong.  Try envisioning some good scenarios.

(iii) think actively about happiness, as in my blog How to be happy: 11 simple tools.

(iv) in particular, keep things in perspective.  Imagine what your grandparents or their grandparents, or a 14th century peasant, would have thought about the way you are living now.

Her Majesty the Queen does much of this in her famous coronavirus speech.  She talks about “a time of disruption in the life of our country… a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all” – accepting that we can’t control everything, as at (i) above.  “I hope in the years to come, everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” she says – keeping things in perspective, (iv) above.  She does the same when she refers back to her own broadcast in 1940, when the UK was facing military catastrophe.  Then she presents a good scenario – (ii) above: “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return.  We will be with our friends again.  We will be with our families again.  We will meet again.”  It’s good stuff; and a splendid lesson in dealing with uncertainty.

If you enjoyed this, you may enjoy my other coronavirus-themed blogs:

– “Vintage Season” – a story for a coronavirus outbreak

Middlemarch: the book for Coronavirus: 25 epigrams

Coronavirus Vienna (with pictures)

And three blogs to cheer us up in these disturbing times.

Ten reasons to like Turkey

Ten reasons to like Lesotho

Ten reasons to like Austria

Enjoy your browse.

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