Quarantine Bubbles Require Directness, and Tolerance of Rudeness

by Raemon4 min read7th Jun 20208 comments

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Covid-19Communication CulturesCommunity
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Berkeley recently introduced a rule where:

  • You always wear a mask within 30' of people, except...
  • You can have a 12-person "Quarantine Social Bubble" of people who interact with each other normally.
  • You can rotate people in your Social Bubble every three weeks.

I think these are the sensible longterm rules, for people who can coordinate well. 

I think most people can't coordinate well, but it was the right decision for Berkeley to make this the rule, because it is actually the obvious Schelling Rule, and people would probably rebel and say "fuck it" if they couldn't do this.

But, I am quite worried about it anyway.

If people get excited about rotating social bubbles, they may screw up and hurt themselves or people they care about. Even if they're smart people who know better.

Twelve people is a lot, and it only takes one roommate or friend who didn't communicate clearly, or took an extra risk without telling everyone, to ruin things for everyone.

I think there are some very important norms about honesty, reliability, and clarity that are very essential to have, if you want to be able to have social-bubbles without risking harm to yourself, your friends and the broader local community.

I don't think we currently have those norms, and they are hard to create from scratch. Creating them will be uncomfortable.

It needs to be common, and acceptable, to ask someone "Hey, have you interacted with any non-social-bubble people without a mask? Even for a little bit? Are you sure? Are you confident that all the other people you interacted with also haven't interacted with people without masks? How do you know? Did you ask them?"

Different people have different risk tolerances, and different beliefs about what actions are risky. But it has to be possible to say:

"Alas. I understand this is hard, and you (or your roommate) are trying your best in a difficult time, but [Action X] means that I won't be interacting with you or the people in your social bubble for another 3 weeks. I still care about you as a friend but it's important for me and my other roommates to stay safe."

I *hope* that people can do all that with compassion. I hope people actually cultivate the skillset of being firm, but empathetic. But, if you don't have the skills of being firm, and willing-to-ask-direct-questions, and empathetic all at once, I'm willing to go on record saying:

 If you can't do all three, empathy is the one you have to drop,

This is really important.

This will suck. It will be hard on people psychologically. It's hard to say "I'm not willing to hang out with you" without it coming across as a harsh social judgment, even if you specifically say "it's not a social judgment, just a practicality."

It's nonetheless important to do it anyway, and to hope over time we learn to internalize a new set of norms, where a) people are much more careful, upfront and direct about their practices, b) we are firm about expecting others to do the same, c) we do that while respecting each other as friends and community members trying their best to make it through a difficult time

I think for a given social bubble to actually be safe, every person will need to have talked to every other person about their quarantine practices, so they can make an informed choice together about what risks to take. They need to communicate clearly with everyone in the bubble about any exceptions they make.

That's a pretty big overhead for establishing a bubble. It means that I think it probably doesn't make sense to rotate bubbles willy-nilly. Each rotated bubble, to actually be safe, requires all that communication overhead all over again.

Rotating social bubbles is an important tool to ensure people's social and emotional lives can thrive in the upcoming year, but doing so responsibility is quite difficult. Even maintaining a single social bubble responsibly is quite difficult. 

Tolerating Rudeness

I'm reminded of Sarah Constantin's Hierarchy of Requests (where level 1 is "too paralyzed to even ask for something", level 2 is "you ask rudely", level 3 is "you ask nicely", and level 4 is "you subtly maneuver things such that people do the thing without you asking.)

In quarantine, I'm worried that the skill of asking "did you see anyone without a mask? Did you visit someone's house? etc" is something most people will be too paralyzed to ask. Eventually I hope we will be able to ask nicely, or that everyone will proactively volunteer information with each other.

But meanwhile, to establish the norm, it is important that we be able to ask rudely, while we practice the skill.

(If I ask you rudely, I apologize in advance)

I'm sure there are some people reading this who are struggling desperately to hold themselves together, who are worried about a social world with lots of rules that they won't always be able to live up to. This is a real cost and it sucks terribly.

But, this is really important.

Sometimes the world just dumps a bunch of terrible crap on us, and it's our responsibility to work together, to find the least bad options, and help each other through them as best we can.

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I expect that if this set of ideas propagates too far it will lead to failing-with-abandon on empathy.

I'm reminded of a recent essay by Ferrett Steinmetz, on how the pandemic requires polyamory's skillsets (i.e. being willing to have frank conversations about health practices that are socially uncomfortable, and being willing to stick up for your boundaries)

https://www.theferrett.com/2020/05/27/to-survive-this-pandemic-well-need-to-adopt-some-polyamorous-skillsets

The degree of tolerance of directness varies culture by culture. The term anthropologists use is high context for less direct cultures vs low context for more direct cultures. The United States is fairly low context but it isn't the most low context culture. For example, both Israeli and Finland have more direct communication as a cultural norm. What Americans see as rudeness is just normal communication in some places.

I think the biggest issue with the bubble rule is that the math doesn't work out. The secondary attack rate between house members is ~30% and probably much lower between other contacts. At that low of a rate, these games with the graph structure buy very little and may be harmful because they increase the fraction of contact occurring between similar people (which is bad because the social cost of a pair of people interacting is roughly the product of their infection risks).

I'm somewhat confused what you mean by "the math doesn't work out." Compared to what?

If you're well coordinated, it seems like the secondary household infection rate isn't too relevant, because you don't interact with anyone else and you don't get sick.

If you're not well coordinated, in the absence of this rule you're probably off doing crazier things.

Are you assuming something like "you're medium coordinated, which is enough to jump through the basic hoops for 12-person-bubble but not enough to avoid one person getting sick and then getting the bubble sick?" Seems plausible, but what number would you have picked? (bearing in mind that if you choose too low a number, after 6 months people are like 'screw it' and doing whatever)

As a background assumption, I'm focused on the societal costs of getting infected, rather than the personal costs, since in most places the latter seem negligible unless you have pre-existing health conditions. I think this is also the right lens through which to evaluate Alameda's policy, although I'll discuss the personal calculation at the end.

From a social perspective, I think it's quite clear that the average person is far from being effectively isolated, since R is around 0.9 and you can only get to around half of that via only household infection. So a 12 person bubble isn't really a bubble... It's 12 people who each bring in non trivial risk from the outside world. On the other hand they're also not that likely to infect each other.

From a personal perspective, I think the real thing to care about is whether the other people are about as careful as you. By symmetry there's no reason to think that another house that practices a similar level of precaution is more likely to get an outside infection than your house is. But by the same logic there's nothing special about a 12 person bubble: you should be trying to interact with people with the same or better risk profile as you (from a personal perspective; from a societal perspective you should interact with riskier people, at least if you're low risk, because bubbles full of risky people are the worst possible configuration and you want to help break those up).

As a background assumption, I'm focused on the societal costs of getting infected, rather than the personal costs, since in most places the latter seem negligible unless you have pre-existing health conditions.

But, of course, any 12-person bubble that contains someone with a pre-existing health condition can't rest on 11 of the people thinking "oh, but I'm healthy!".

From a social perspective, I think it's quite clear that the average person is far from being effectively isolated, since R is around 0.9 and you can only get to around half of that via only household infection.

I think 'the average person' is the wrong thing to think about here. When the infection is rare, R will be driven by the actions of the riskiest people, since they're the ones who predominantly have it, spread it, and catch it. If 50% of the population has an actual risk of 0, and there aren't any graph connections between them and the other 50% of the population, then the whole population R will be driven by the connected half (and will only have slowed by by whatever connections got severed to the hermit half).

On the one hand, this is a message for hope ("you can probably relax to 'normal human' standards and only have an R of 1"), but also 'normal human' standards might be incompatible in other ways (someone who lives with 0 or 1 other person has much less to fear from a household secondary attack rate of 0.3 than someone who lives in a house of 12 people).

From a personal perspective, I think the real thing to care about is whether the other people are about as careful as you. ... But by the same logic there's nothing special about a 12 person bubble

Sure, 12 is a magic number, and actually weighing the tradeoffs should lead to different thresholds in different situations. But the overall thing you're trying to balance is "risk cost" against "socialization gains", and even if costs are linear, sublinear benefits scuttle these sorts of symmetry analyses.

I think the bit of this that I'm having the hardest time wrapping my head around is something like "if you accept people that are as careful as you, then you are less careful than you used to be." Like, suppose you have a 12-person bubble, all of whom don't interact with the outside world. Then if you say "we are open to all bubbles with at most 12 people, all of whom don't interact with the outside world", you now potentially have a bubble whose size is measured in the hundreds, which is a pretty different situation than the one you started in.

I don't think bubble size is the right thing to measure; instead you should measure the amount of contract you have with people, weighted by time, distance, indoor/outdoor, mask-wearing, and how likely the other person is to be infected (I.e. how careful they are).

An important part of my mental model is that infection risk is roughly linear in contact time.