COVID-19 And The Paradox of Preparation

by | Apr 23, 2020


Social distancing and isolation are getting old. And most days it seems like an overreaction: nobody in my circle of friends, family, or co-workers has tested positive.* I can see why some people are protesting lockdowns: they probably haven’t personally seen the negative health effects of the virus.

Of course, the fact that my social circle is seemingly free of COVID-19 and people are protesting the measures being taken means that social distancing and isolation are working. Successful battling of any contagious disease like COVID-19 will look like an overreaction. This is known as the paradox of preparation which means that the more we do to prevent the spread of a disease, the less it will spread, and the more our actions will appear too extreme.

This tweet by epidemiologist Mari Armstrong-Hough summarizes the paradox well:


Similarly, the paradox of preparation was explained this way in The New Yorker a month ago:

Few people have trouble understanding the purpose of public education or public housing: they are tangible programs that, at least in theory, are designed to improve our lives. Public-health accomplishments, however, are measured in an entirely different way: success is defined by what is prevented, not by what is produced. This creates an odd psychological dynamic. When public-health programs are successful, they are invisible, and what is invisible is almost always taken for granted. Nobody cheers when they remain untouched by a disease that they hardly knew existed.

The paradox of preparation works in both directions – when something like social distancing is working it seems as if it can be stopped because everything is ok (or nearly ok). This is like the problem many mental health patients have taking their medications — they stop taking the meds because they think they are “fine” and don’t like the side effects – but it was the continued taking of the medications that had made them better.

Below is a really great video showing how social distancing works. I bet the ping pong balls in the second half of the video think that it’s dumb that they are so far apart.

*It is very possible (or even probable) that people within my social circle have had COVID-19 but due to lack of testing they haven’t officially been diagnosed with it. Also – I do know some people who have had COVID-19, but they are not people I interact with regularly.


  1. John thanks again for sharing this IFOD! James your example of Y2K is good point. Best Matt

  2. Great IFOD as always. The one way we might know if social distancing and the other measures we took were an “overreaction” is if the level of infections turns out to be much higher than expected. In other words, our narrative of “social distancing has reduced infections (or flattened the curve, which are slightly different things) and therefore critical cases and deaths have been reduced” might actually be “infections are greater than we originally anticipated and the real reason for fewer critical cases and deaths is that the fatality rate is far lower than originally estimated. Only time and better data (i.e. testing) will be able to answer this question.

    Two things I think we can definitively say at this point: 1) COVID-19 is a highly infectious little beast and 2) we are all sick of quarantining!

  3. The Y2K issue is similar. Our company and others spent a ton of money in Y2K preparation. When we rolled over to the year 2000, it was a non event. People asked, “why did we spend so much money? That was no big deal.” The answer, of course, was it was no big deal because we spent so much money to be sure it wasn’t.


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