Personal and Public Risk in a Pandemic

Adam Palay, Contributor

Adam Palay (MBA ’21) raises questions about our collective responsibilities during a pandemic.

Not long before school started, at my desk in my home office, I took a deep breath and clicked a button. I had just opted out of coming in-person to the hybrid courses I would take this term.

It might seem like a strange choice. I live in Boston, near campus. I have a relatively robust immune system. And I am a huge nerd: I just love the in-person academic experience of HBS.

In the moment, a lot was going through my head. For one, I did not know if hybrid classrooms were safe. Without a holistic assessment of classroom ventilation and physical distance measures, it was not clear to me how to assess the risk. I had memories of last year’s RC flu almost comically working its way counterclockwise through my section. Stories of coronavirus spreading at in-person parties over the summer left me with some doubts on whether we would have full compliance with HBS’s public health protocols and how that would affect classroom safety.

There were—and are—a lot of unknowns. And each one of us ended up making a decision that felt right to us. I certainly empathize with and harbor no judgment for my friends and professors who are meeting for class in person.

I think an important nuance about the nature of that decision gets lost. Even though it ended up being a personal decision, I did not make it out of my own personal risk tolerance for contracting coronavirus. I opted out of hybrid courses out of the fear that I would spread it.

The reason I am writing this piece is to reframe how we think about the risk we take on in the midst of pandemic. I am not arguing that you should behave in any particular way—rather to emphasize that, when making decisions, we should consider ourselves not just as targets of the disease but also as vectors for its spread. 

In some sense, all of our personal decisions have societal implications. But that is especially true of coronavirus, because it is so contagious. A decision we make about our risk exposure simultaneously is a decision we make on behalf of all the people with whom we interact: our roommates, our neighbors, friends, family, and service professionals, to name just a few. Just as we affect their risk exposure, they set that same exposure of everyone they interact with in turn.

To follow that chain of logic, in a way it is nonsensical to speak of “personal” risk tolerance in a pandemic. As we engage in the world, our risk exposure has already been decided for us by the collective risk-taking of every individual in society.

And yet, even if our impact is public, the decisions we make are personal, insofar as they affect us at the core of our humanity. We miss our families. Many international students have been unable to return home, unable to see loved ones and significant others. We miss the electricity of live HBS classrooms, the thrill of surfacing a freshly formed idea to an intent room of 90 brilliant people who are fast becoming friends. It hurts to lose that, and it is not a trivial thing to give up.

That predicament, how things that bring our lives meaning can come at the expense of the public good, is a dilemma not unique to pandemics. For me, the things that give my life meaning—traveling to see family and explore new places, using electronic devices for entertainment and connection, and the foods I grew up eating—have grave implications for the release of greenhouse gases, which is causing, in slow motion, cataclysmic climate change.  

In the late 2000s, McKinsey took a crack at trying to understand how much it would cost to eliminate the 40 gigatonnes of yearly greenhouses gases the world emits. While the details of their analysis are now outdated, the main lesson from it is as relevant as ever: some emissions can be abated while being remunerative (think Tesla), but most cannot be. There are win-wins, but they are not jointly sufficient to rescue us from the climate crisis.

As business school students with a sense of social responsibility, we naturally gravitate toward those win-wins. I do not want to diminish their importance. They are an integral part of the multi-faceted response that the society needs. Yet if the sum total of our actions is concentrated among the win-wins, if we only make decisions on the basis of our own marginal economic or emotional gain, we will not abate those unprofitable emissions, and so we will not fix climate change. It is an illustration of the fact that collectively acting on our personal desires can overlap with, but will not necessarily cause, positive social outcomes.

In a span of five months, my wife and I lost three grandparents—two to respiratory viruses in December and January and one to coronavirus in April. I wonder how that experience has changed the way I think about the risk we pose to the more vulnerable in society and how tied up we all are in one another’s well-being. I thought about it too over the summer, when the painful reality of racial injustice came to the forefront of the national—and communal—consciousness, and how Black, non-White Hispanic, and American Indian people have been disproportionally infected and killed by the virus in this country. How do we square our personal and public pandemic response with our commitment to racial justice?

If there were a risk-free way of reopening society, we would have done it. We can never fully assess the risks that we expose ourselves to before we take action. But to me, these kinds of predicaments beg the question of who should be making decisions in the face of them. Similar to climate change and systemic racism, the problems that coronavirus poses are systemic in nature, where even well-meaning people generate externalities whose immediate costs are concentrated among vulnerable populations. Those costs eventually affect everyone.

So, if these are, by their nature, public decisions, who should be making them? The state? The school? The reverberating individual judgments of any small group of us? 

I do not know the answer to these questions. We are in strange times. But I will continue to meditate on them as I figure out how to go about my daily life in a pandemic, and I hope you will join me in continuing to think it all through, openly and optimistically.

Adam Palay (MS/MBA ’21) is originally from Chicago and studied at Harvard as an undergraduate. He worked in software before business school and now looks to pursue a career in climate tech. When he is not reading cases, he is probably reading other things or trying to get you to play tennis with him.