Editorial: ‘Abundance of caution’ is appropriate in decisions about coronavirus

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

As public health officials, companies, organizations and individuals grapple with the knowns and the unknowns of COVID-19, phrases like “out of an abundance of caution” have become the norm.

Organizations have postponed major events, colleges are moving their classes online, K-12 schools are closing, the NCAA has canceled its basketball tournaments and many companies are asking employees to work from home.

Is it all overkill? We don’t know. And that’s the key. That’s why “out of an abundance of caution” is the phrase of the moment—and we believe appropriately so.

The coronavirus that is causing the illness is new—discovered just months ago in Wuhan, China—and health officials are still learning about how it’s spread, who is most vulnerable and how to treat it.

The good news is that it doesn’t appear to cause a particularly serious flu for most people. The bad news is, it appears to be particularly easily spread—and that’s what seems to have organizations and companies and individuals most concerned.

Stories about the illness spreading quickly among passengers of cruise ships, residents at a nursing home and attendees at a bio conference have organizations appropriately rethinking their events and their internal and external interactions.

These can be incredibly difficult decisions. Organizations are canceling events they’ve put thousands of hours—and probably even more money—into planning. Colleges are interrupting the education of thousands of students in the hopes that professors will be able to adjust quickly to an online format that will provide a comparable experience.

But at the same time, many of these decisions should be fairly easy ones. Public health could be at stake.

So while there’s a financial hit from canceling events or giving employees paid time off or buying the technology to let everyone work from home, there could be much more risk to a company or organization that chooses not to do some of those things.

And that risk is not just a financial one; it’s a reputational one.

That doesn’t mean we’re advocating that every public event be canceled, that every athletic contest be played without fans or that everyone should work from home. What we’re saying is that organizations have a responsibility to make thoughtful and informed decisions that take into account the potential impacts on their own employees or members as well as on the public as a whole. And because all organizations are different, because events and jobs are different, and because the information about COVID-19 is evolving quickly, those decisions will differ by organization.

This is not a time to be critical of organizations that make what might seem like drastic decisions “out of an abundance of caution.” They are not panicking. They are acting with the public’s interest at heart, something that should be the goal for all of us.•

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