Skydiving legend Bill Booth, an engineer and manufacturer in parachuting equipment, has taught and trained generations of those who choose to jump out of planes. He began in the mid-1960s when he was not yet 20. He has survived a long time; he has done so with a lot of rules. Booth’s Rule No. 2 has become a legend. He wondered why skydiving deaths were at best constant, but sometimes increasing annually — in 1981, 56 divers lost their lives — despite increased Safety features in parachute equipment. He believes now that “the safer skydiving gear becomes, the more chances skydivers will take, in order to keep the fatality rate constant.” Indeed, the skydiving Death rate didn’t dramatically change for decades; it is about half that number now.
This phenomenon, the stubbornly high level of deaths, at first seemed inexplicable to Booth since parachutes had become so reliable. But, he noted, they were also faster, more complicated, with high-performing canopies making divers overconfident because of the safety features. They would try high-speed maneuvers closer to the ground, crazy twirls in too-narrow cliff passages, pulling the parachute lever too late, living — and then dying — off the thrill. It took years for the skydiving community to recognize that safer parachutes didn’t make parachuting safe if the diver took more risks.
Booth was onto something. It has a more wonky explanation in crisis and disaster studies, and not without some controversy since data is clear that safety measures, such as helmets, work. Still, this phenomenon — technically known as risk homeostasis, or RHT — was first observed by Queen’s University professor emeritus Gerald Wilde. Wilde examined a variety of safety measures and initiatives and argued that they often do not work out as planned because of subjective risk perceptions. RHT posits that individuals and institutions will evaluate risk, altering their safety effectiveness to achieve a certain static level. Thus, greater protection enables greater risk-taking, at least at first. It explains what continues to confound safety planners: Why do some safety measures not result in the overall net benefit anticipated? It is because we often offset the risk by jumping, wildly.
Or, in the case of the unvaccinated, falling without a chute.
We are well ensconced in this strange, indefinite period of our pandemic response. Many of us are vaccinated and boosted, but a stubborn 25 percent percent of adults do not have a single dose of the vaccine. The masks are off, but is it too soon? A new generation of anti-viral drugs such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid appear to offer hope that early intervention can substantially reduce the severity of Covid-19 cases, if caught in time. America is ready to move on, but Covid is not; a new variant seems to be on its way. The data is uncertain. “Follow the science” provides no linear guidance.
We are certainly safer, just not safe. We live with the threat of infection and counterthreat of excessive precautions and disruptions, simultaneously. If it feels strange, begging for more certainty, it is not surprising. But it is not unusual. We are living Booth’s Rule No. 2.
There is substantial evidence that, in its Covid response, America has been creating its own version of an experimental risk offset. In the initial burst of infection, in 2020, there were no vaccines and few treatments. Offices closed down and people sheltered indoors. Hospitalizations rose to 9.9 per 100,000 residents, and deaths to 11 per 100,000 U.S. residents. In the Delta wave of 2021, there were vaccinations to protect people, even if some chose not to have them. Many people on both sides of the vaccine divide chose to forgo masks, and mandates of all kinds became sources of fierce disagreement.
With more socializing the hospitalization rate rose to 15.5 per 100,000 adults, and the death rate to 12 per 100,000 U.S. residents. When Omicron hit at the very end of the year and the start of 2022, it raced through the population, infecting the unvaccinated in big numbers and breaking through the vaccine walls as well. With many more cases, albeit many of them less severe than in previous waves, hospitalizations still topped out at about 38.4 per 100,000 adults and deaths at 16 per 100,000 U.S. residents. The death rate, therefore, has been between 11-16 U.S. residents per 100,000 through three waves. But we are living differently — we are essentially living — through this one.
It seems then that America’s willingness to take risks is increasing in rough proportion to its advances in protection, both vaccines and therapeutics. We may have reached a point where we’re willing to tolerate 1,000 deaths a day just to have our freedom back, so long as most of us can count on a good outcome if and when we become infected. Is this a sad, even horrifying, development? Yes, I guess, in some sense purely by the numbers. But, also, not necessarily because the consequences of not taking that risk means we will never jump, never take advantage of the safety and security features that make us more likely to live during the free fall.
For decades, I have studied, managed and advised in crisis and disaster management. My book The Devil Never Wins: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters takes account of centuries of crises to find lessons that are common, and not exceptional, about them. Disasters are shocking, but they are not new. The benefit of a career in mayhem is that even something as novel as a pandemic can begin to have familiar features. We can be guided by what disasters of the past can tell us; only modern arrogance would suggest otherwise.
There is no such goal as risk elimination in this world. Such a victory is a fantasy; the devil, in some form, never sleeps. Instead, the goal is to minimize risk by asserting human agency to prevent the harm and, since a harm will eventually come, prepare best for its arrival again and again. We are, in some fashion, always adapting.
In crisis management, we are in what I’ve come to call adaptive recovery to the pandemic. Adaptive recovery merely means that, unlike with most other disasters, we will not have the benefit of looking at the harm in the rearview mirror as we still move forward. Hurricanes pass; earthquakes end; terrorists are captured; cyber breaches are remedied. This recovery affords no such luxury as the virus persists. We would be shortsighted to talk of some victory or finish line. If on this side of Covid — with a vaccine, treatments, testing and education — lies a return to a new normal, it also isn’t a free-for-all.
In other words, never assume closure. But, good news, that has always been the case. The best safety and security measures that once seemed appropriate are constantly pivoting, being tested and challenged. We’ve seen time and time again, from the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to the Surfside condominium tragedy, that the assumptions of the past — that terror groups want a lot of people watching, not dead, or that what was built 40 years ago can withstand the climate changes of the last years — do not hold. We suffer more when we remain static. The same will be true in the battle against Covid-19 in the years ahead.
So if our times beg for adaptation, they also require some caution. As skydiving statistics illuminated, it can take some time for the safety balance to align correctly, for the parachuting deaths to finally go down; they won’t get to zero, but to something more manageable. In other words, learning to optimize the offset doesn’t come immediately.
So for the months that lie ahead, guidance may not come from science, medicine, public health or even politics, but from the skydivers. Eventually, they adapted to their new normal: Safer parachutes finally led to a drop in fatalities. Education, training and greater understanding that the parachutes were still not risk-free led to the kind of decreases in deaths that should have been seen immediately. Each jumper needs to ensure that they don’t increase the danger by offsetting with behavior that they are unable to control. There are still many who do not have that luxury: the young and their parents, the immunocompromised. They are important to remember, to care for, as we jump.
Is it safe? That is the wrong question. It is simply safer than before.