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The Risk Matrix as a Tool to Think About Covid-19

This article is to give readers a crash course in risk assessment so that we can have the tools to think about risk in an objective and systematic way. When we have a framework to analyze our behaviour, and to evaluate available resources and the environment around us, we can exercise our best judgement to navigate all the decisions that we have to make in this volatile, uncertain and complex world.

The outdoors is an ever-changing and dynamic environment where risk can never be fully eliminated but it can always be effectively managed. Thus, for professional staff and organizations in the outdoor education and adventure tourism industry, risk evaluation and risk mitigation are things that are constantly playing in the background for any activity that we do. In this article, we will introduce ideas such as the risk matrix and risk-benefit analysis, and apply it to thinking about the pandemic.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and there were shelter at home orders around the world, people were told it was their duty to stay indoors to “flatten the curve”. The decision was made for us because the risk was too high for countries to allow individual people to do as they wished. Now almost every country is starting to open up, and everyone suddenly has to exercise some degree of choice about how we resume our lives and old habits. And debates are raging as people wonder if it is safe to go out to the mall or to have friends over for dinner or go out to the jungle. We hope this article will give you some tools to make your decisions.

The basic formula used to assess the level of risk is as follows.
RISK = SEVERITY OF OUTCOME X PROBABILITY OF OCCURRENCE.
Risks can be categorized as Low, Medium or Extreme. See Fig 1 below.

Figure 1: Risk Map or risk matrix.

In the above graphic, an example of a low-risk activity is jumping over a small and shallow stream. There is a low probability of falling in and if you do fall in, the consequences are pretty insignificant. Your feet may get wet but that’s all.

There are two medium risk activities in the graphic. Jumping over a wide but shallow stream has a pretty high chance of you falling in but all that is going to happen is your feet will get wet. If you are jumping over a narrow stream but with a big drop with jagged rocks, it is quite unlikely for you to fail, but if you do, you can get hurt.

Lastly, the high-risk activity in the graphic is jumping over a wide stream with a big, bad drop. You have a high probability of falling in, and when you fall in, it will hurt! A lot! So perhaps you should not jump over that stream. When the probability of falling in is even higher and the consequences more serious, the risk level moves from being high risk to extreme risk.

Using the Risk Matrix to Understand Covidiots and the Covidient.

When Covid-19 has first declared a pandemic, there was overwhelming evidence that the likelihood of getting Covid-19 very high because the disease was highly infectious and it could be spread even by people who were asymptomatic.

However, we definitely saw and still see people with different beliefs about how severe the illness is, and this informs their whole attitude about the risk of the disease. The Covidiots are the ones out partying on the beach, not bothering to the social distance at all because they believe that it is just like the common flu (ie not severe). The Covident are those who are very obedient to every rule and regulation because they believe that anyone can get severely ill, not just the aged. And they have a high level of worry that they will fall ill.

On social media, the Covidiots and the Covident are generally at war with each other. In some cases, it gets pretty nasty. Instead of each group just shaming the other for their different beliefs about the consequences of catching Covid-19, perhaps we can find some common ground to communicate effectively. If we all agree that the likelihood of catching the virus is high, can we agree to keep the risk to a medium level for everyone by practising social distancing and mask-wearing? The meme below is really about reducing the risk for everyone.

Mitigating or reducing risk

Apart from understanding the factors that determine the overall level of risk, risk management also considers how we can mitigate or reduce risk. There are many different strategies in risk reduction that each work on a different part of the equation. Wearing a mask is a way to reduce the likelihood of getting infected. The same goes for maintaining basic hygiene, to wash hands frequently or use a hand sanitizer and observing social distancing. When these are applied together, it will significantly reduce the likelihood of getting infected.

Staying fit and giving up smoking is a way of reducing the severity if we do get sick. The World Health Organisation (WHO) mentioned that smoking impairs lung function, making it harder for the body to fight off coronaviruses and other respiratory diseases. If you are a smoker and have been thinking about quitting, maybe now is the time to start implementing the steps to go smoke-free. Staying fit has also been touted as a good way to prevent severe symptoms. Covid-19 patients who are obese tend to have poorer outcomes, so this is another good reason to maintain good body weight.

In the outdoors, hazard factors and risk reduction strategies generally fall under three categories: People, Equipment and Environment. For Covid-19, the environmental factors include the number of active cases in an area and also the medical capacity of that area. This is what flattening the curve was all about. If you catch Covid-19 when the hospitals are overwhelmed, the severity will increase. However, if there are abundant medical resources, the overall risk becomes lower.

Consider all these factors as you evaluate how you can take steps to reduce the risk of infection for yourself and your family.

Risk-Benefit Analysis

The final aspect that we have to consider is the risk-benefit analysis – a comparison between the risks of a situation and its benefits. It’s used to figure out whether a course of action is worth accepting the risk or if the risk is just too high for you. People do this in their everyday lives without realizing it, because everything we do has some kind of risk.

For example, now that we are allowed to exercise outdoors, we have to weigh the benefits of going for a jog against the risk of getting infected by going out of our houses. This often comes down to a personal assessment.

How much do you value those benefits? For some people exercising outdoors has the same value as exercising indoors. For others, exercising outdoors is vital for their well-being. For some, going out to earn RM 100 is the difference between their family having food to eat that night or not. For others, earning RM 100 is just small change. This is where we have to exercise our judgement because only we can know the value we can derive from accepting that risk.

Malaysians like to say, “no choice”. For example, people say, “ No choice, I have to go to buy food during the pandemic because I have to eat.”

Well, we beg to defer. This article is really to educate people that we ARE making choices all the time. You are making the choice to calculate the risk, you are making the choice to carry out the risk-mitigating actions (wash hands, social distancing), and ultimately you are making a choice as to what level of risk you want to accept.

Understanding risk management helps to empower us to make better choices.

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