Notre Dame Professor Thinks “Courage” is Stronger than COVID

The Chicago Tribune recently published a column by University of Notre Dame history professor Patrick Griffin, in which he praises ND for reopening during the pandemic and claims this shows a “deeper wisdom than the world usually recognizes.” As a pioneer in developing methods of quantitative risk assessment and teaching public and private decision-makers how to choose wisely when faced with difficult trade-offs, I’ve often had to correct some pretty confused and cavalier advice about risk. Griffin’s column is insulting to any who’s ever thought hard about risk and benefit, and monstrously so to anyone who has lost a loved one to this disease.

He starts with perhaps the most tired refrain in the risk-trivialization toolbox: everyone dies of something. Wow: “the human condition” is to be mortal, and so early death, or lifelong debility, is just another day at the office? Of course there are costs to virtual learning, and going online does not reduce risk to zero — but smart and principled leaders don’t play risks off against each other, but try to minimize net risk.

Runners exit the University of Notre Dame’s campus at the main gate. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune)

Worse still is Griffin’s theme that “courage” got Notre Dame through “the Spanish Flu and two World Wars” (well, everyone but those who died in those events…). Can we agree that bravado is neither a vaccine nor a therapy, that courage is nice but that the odds don’t care or change whether you are treading carefully or stomping through the minefield?

As for the underlying medical science, Griffin is just oblivious to claim that “the young and healthy have a tiny chance of falling seriously ill… a small price to pay for the experience of bravely confronting life’s realities.” Just in the past week, the Journal of the American Medical Association has published two studies; the first shows that among persons 18–34 hospitalized with COVID, 2.7% died and 31% more required ventilation and/or intensive care. The second found that nearly half of a small group of competitive athletes who “recovered” from COVID had inflammation of the heart muscle or signs of cardiac scar tissue.

Finally, is it possible that one of the nation’s great Catholic universities has forgotten about the Beatitudes? The cover photo in the Tribune showing three shirtless and maskless athletes conveys an interesting message; some will see them striding mightily towards “freedom,” and others perhaps as running headlong into the unknown. I see instead an image of students explicitly heading off campus, where the older and perhaps frailer residents of the South Bend area may not be so appreciative of encountering the bold, devil-may-care Fighting Irish.

Note: I originally wrote this response two weeks before the Rose Garden “super spreader” ceremony, at which Notre Dame’s President, Rev. John Jenkins, attended, maskless, and contracted Covid-19. This essay is NOT an “I told you so”; merely a reaction to a mangling of basic risk-assessment and risk-management concepts.

Risk assessment expert, former federal government regulator (OSHA), choral singer and conductor

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