Quarantine Idea: Exposure Units

by David J. Cunningham
Sat Apr 18 2020


A month into quarantine, I've started to think about how we will manage risk in the next year in this new world. Sure, for a month or two, being completely housebound is an unpleasant but feasible affair, but what about for the next six months? What about for the next eighteen?

We're now looking at that as a possibility in the long term unless we find a way to balance risk with some degree of normality and enjoyment.

Now, before moving forward, I want it to be clear that I'm in no way advocating people get back out to the bars, concerts and movie theaters now, or maybe even for quite a while. Instead, I'm talking about managing risk with regards to, for example, picking up groceries, going to a store to get something that may not be as critical as food but might be pretty important, like a new monitor to work on or the replacement of an old car part.

Exposure Units

When you need to get out of the house to do something that is important but not necessarily survival-dependent, it can be hard right now to justify. I think the approach of simply eschewing a lot of those things makes sense in the short term (from a month back to the next month or three). But COVID won't cease to exist by July. It won't cease to exist by the end of 2020. This will be an ongoing societal change for at least the next year, and life won't be exactly 'back to normal' for quite a while, if ever. At some point, we have to start doing the important- and enjoyable-but-not-critical things again. And those things will involve some degree of risk. So how much risk is too much? That's where I propose the idea of Exposure Units (XU).

Think of budgeting your possible exposure to COVID like you would your finances. In the bank, you might have a certain amount of money come in each month. The more money you save, the better, but typically you have to spend at least some of it, and there's a maximum you can spend. Generally speaking, you first spend money on critical things, like rent and food and healthcare, so that you don't find yourself lacking those things and past your budget. After critical things, you buy semi-critical things, and then maybe nonessential things, and then hopefully you have some money left over that you haven't spent, for long term security.

Exposure Units work the same way. Think about rating every activity as having a certain relative exposure risk, and assign points to those activities. Walking in a park alone, 0 to 1 points. Going into a grocery store for food, 3 to 5 points. Going to a pharmacy, doctor's office, or hospital, 7 to 10 points. Meeting a friend who has been without human contact for 3 weeks, 3 to 6 points.

Call these points Exposure Units (XU), and imagine you have a budget of XU each month. Right now, our budget is little to nothing, where we can only spend a couple of XU per week, if any, and therefore aren't taking any risks for nonessential tasks. But as the curve hopefully levels out, and some risk becomes acceptable, our budgets will get a little higher.

So say you have 20 XU per week to spend a few months from now, say July. You could get a cable curbside pickup from a Best Buy, 3 points. Go get a pizza from your local joint, 3 points. Have a friend over who has no symptoms and has not been in a medical facility in over a month, 4 points. These three activities would add up to around half your week's budget. Once you've gone over your week's budget, you'll be dipping into a debt of risk that you want to habitually avoid, just like with your finances. And before you pick up a pizza from your local place, you want to make sure you've spent your XU on essentials like getting your cavity filled at a dentist's office.

Right now it may sound like allowing ourselves 'some risk here, some risk there' is unacceptable, but this exposure risk isn't just going to drop to zero one day. We're going to be negotiating with it for months and maybe years to come. XU is a system for managing that risk in a way that assumes you can't simply live a zero-risk, shuttered life indefinitely, and that eventually you're going to have to balance between putting your XU in 'savings' and spending some of it on things that manage and enrich your life.


For anyone reading this, I'm really interested to hear what you think. This is a new idea I've come up with, and I'm still thinking about the different ramifications of it, but I think there's something to it.

Stay Healthy!