Asbestos is a fibrous mineral, found in nature, which was for many years used for fireproofing and other thermal insulation. It’s still one of the best thermal insulators known. But asbestos fibers, when inhaled, lead to cancer and other lung diseases. Asbestos has been the subject of vast litigation, and there is an industry built around the removal or abatement of asbestos.
The incidence of disease and death from asbestos has a random character. In the time before the danger of asbestos was widely recognized, some people worked around asbestos their entire lives with no ill effect; others fell deathly ill over the course of a summer internship at the asbestos plant. Most cases, though, involved repeated exposure over time.
Today, the discipline and procedures of asbestos abatement are built around the premise that the danger of asbestos is not random. The probability of disease on exposure to asbestos above the ‘safe level’ is presumed to be unity, i.e. the stuff is presumed to be lethal. Workers tasked with asbestos abatement must wear protective clothing and masks, and special arrangements are made to ventilate the work area and prevent asbestos fibers from escaping outside.
In an industrial environment, these rules make sense. Employers are required to provide a safe work environment, providing training and protection against hazards in the workplace. It would not be OK for an employer to pass the risk of illness of an incomplete protective regime to his employees, even with their informed consent.
But this character of randomness associated with asbestos applies to other agents in the environment, including tobacco and (this season’s favorite!) viral exposure.
Last week, 60 Minutes ran a segment on the military’s response to coronavirus. The military had to develop policies and procedures on the spot as the threat emerged, without data on how deadly the virus might be or its propagation. The result was a regime similar to asbestos abatement: the virus is presumed to be deadly wherever it might appear, and anyone not known to be safe is presumed to carry it. Social distancing (‘tactical dispersion’) and hygiene procedures are ruthless.
And for the military, these rules make sense. The first mission of the military is to be ready to carry out whatever other missions may be necessary, and being inconvenienced is part of military life.
But is this approach the right one for the rest of us?
What we are starting to know now from data is what many of us suspected in February: Covid-19 is similar to the seasonal flu. It spreads almost as broadly as the seasonal flu, and while it is more serious than the seasonal flu, it’s not so deadly as to merit panic.
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Yesterday, my wife and I bought lunch in a local pizzeria and enjoyed it al fresco in Prospect Park. We took off our masks to eat and watched the people go by. It was a glorious day: the first real spring day this season. The park seemed busier than a normal Saturday: with everything else closed, what else was there? We took a long walk, and when I got home, I realized I had a little sunburn. It felt good.
Families hung out together in the park, but otherwise people were reasonably distancing themselves. But I’m compelled to wonder: if you pass within eight feet of, say, 1,000 people, are you really safer than sitting six feet from four or five people in a subway car?
Were we taking our lives in our hands enjoying a sunny day in the park? Even knowing about the virus, I find that really hard to believe.