The Household Covid Budget

Full length of young female friends using smart phones while relaxing on bed at home during slumber party

Since the arrival of Covid-19 even popping to the shop for some milk has become a risk — and if you live with people, it is also a risk for them. In a shared housing situation figuring out what is acceptable behavior has become harder, and even the clearest advice “doesn’t address many of the subtle situations in which we find ourselves.” Gregory Barber asks in Wired what to do if you are a group of six people, including polyamorous members, living together in a house share? For such a group in San Francisco, the answer lay in maths — they came up with a calculator to work out risk, giving each other a points budget to use each week. 

Some activities were trickier to translate into points. First dates, in particular, would trigger a reversion to what Olsson calls a “one-off person-risk estimate.” The fact-finding missions these estimates required were a little strange and intrusive. The housemates wanted to know how often a new person shopped for groceries, who they lived with. Were they a gym rat? An ER doctor? Bachar found these interrogations uncomfortable. It felt as if she was implying that her friends were behaving badly. But others felt the questions were a reasonable concession to the pandemic. Dobro says that polyamory had prepared her for these awkward conversations around trade-offs. “We’re used to having conversations that are linked to risk,” she says. If you choose to be indoors with someone, the roommates agreed, make it count. Make it a deep conversation. Make it sex.

This was a house share better suited to calculating risk than most — Olsson works for a Silicon Valley foundation on projects that seek to mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of advanced AI — and the other residents, to various degrees, are adherents to “rationalist modes of thinking.” The calculator this particular house came up with has now been used around the world — including by Bob Wachter, the chair of internal medicine at UC San Francisco and a frequent public commentator on all matters Covid-19.

Olsson called their risk points microcovids, in a tip of the hat to Howard, and one microcovid equaled a one-in-a-million chance of catching the virus. They pulled epidemiology papers from Google Scholar and gathered around the table in the hearth to go through the data. The first step was to impose a top-line risk budget that would anchor all of their calculations. They debated this question at length. Olsson floated the idea of 10,000 microcovids per person per year—the equivalent of a 1 percent chance of catching Covid. But what was the actual cost of 10,000 microcovids? By their estimations, for people their age, a 1 percent chance of getting sick was about as risky as driving, which was something they did without thinking. And besides, they figured, if other people who could stay home kept to a similar budget, the hospitals would not overflow. The virus might even disappear.

To some extent, governments around the world are using their version of Covid point calculators. It may seem strange that in some areas regulations mean we cannot meet friends while children are still going to school, but it is how risk has been allocated across a community to keep it at an acceptable level. 

This was the initial premise of shutdowns and social distancing and sheltering in place. Our common infection budget was tied to hospital capacity—the number of ICU beds and respirators and medical staff able to respond. For those who could work from home, the task was to contribute as little as possible to the overall sum. This left more points for those who couldn’t. Then, as the first infection curve began to flatten, the foundation of the societal budget seemed to shift. Yes, we still had to worry about public health, but that concern was being stretched by other considerations: business closures, job losses, some ideal of liberty, the desire to eat burritos.

Read the story