COVID Conflict Resolution

What to do when your housemates have varying levels of caution

Had an…interesting experience recently, regarding people with different risk tolerances living in one building. With many of you reading this both reading the same news stories, and possibly also living with roomates in areas with exorbitantly-high rent, I felt like this guide was in order.

Imagine a plague if you will. Not necessarily Bubonic plague. Not necessarily COVID-19 either. This is just a general sickness that goes around, but it’s lethality is high enough to warrant special attention from just about everyone. The probability of catching or not catching this plague (i.e., Plague-risk) is by no means certain. In this super coarse-grained, simplified scenario, plague-risk has two main attributes:

  1. It is additively transferable among groups of people (groups can be any size, including just one). Transfer just requires some kind of connection between the groups.
  2. The risk factor is the degree of risk that is added when two graphs of people interact. The connection is not all-or-nothing. Depending on the type of interaction, the risk is somewhere between 0 and 1.

We have two main groups here that can be distinguished by risk-tolerance:

  1. The “Lonely-Islanders” (or just “Islanders”) - When these people think of the acronym “Y.O.L.O.”, they think of “You Only Live Once”. If you die, that’s it. These are the risk-minimizers that might be taking a page out of “The Lonely Island“‘s hit doomsday-pepping song “YOLO”.
  2. The “Red Joe’s” (or just “Joes”) - When these people think of the acronym “Y.O.L.O.”, they think of “You Only Look Once”. This is a famous algorithm in Computer vision for the task of image segmentation. True, there are more accurate algorithms for this task, but YOLO balances speed and accuracy. One of the authors, Joseph Redmond (after which this group of people is named) knew well that there’s a tradeoff that has to be made. Likewise the “Red Joe’s” or “Joe’s” feel like there’s a tradeoff to be made in terms of risk. The YOLO algorithm won’t reduce the risk of inaccuracy all the way because it still wants to take action. The Joes are the same, except they won’t reduce the risk of infection all the way because they want to live life (whether that be continuing to work or interacting with loved ones). There are obviously sub-categories of these:
  3. The “Peninsula” Joes: Named so because they’re almost a risk-minimizing “Islander”, but they’re missing something that would let them finally enter the bunker. Maybe it’s an emergency fund, or assurance that they would be able to stave off depression. Once they fill that need, they should be golden.
  4. The “Altruistic” Joes”: They’re driven by something they value more than themselves, whether it be family or friends or anyone else with higher risk-tolerance than them.
  5. The “Greedy” Joes: They’re focusing on the immediate present or super-short-term, and on those time-scales the isolation just isn’t worth the change in quality of life.

Of course, essentialism is always iffy on it’s real-life implementation, and people can be pretty fluid about which category they belong to.

But what happens when people distinctly from different categories are in the same house or building? There’s bound to be some friction.

The islanders can’t minimize risk if there are any non-islanders around. The Islanders see most if not all Joes as the defectors in a prisoner’s dilemma. In an islander’s ideal world, everyone else would also be an islander. A Joe not changing their behavior for the sake of safety is completely absurd!

Joes don’t mind being around Islanders or other Joes, but an Islander can get on their nerves if they try to restric the Joe’s habits or daily life. A Joe recognizes that you can’t completely eliminate risk. A non-zero amount of risk is not only to be expected, but acceptable. Joes see the islanders as crazy doomsday preppers, unreasonably demanding that everyone around them adopt their lifestyle.

Okay. How to we accomodate these competing stances?

Certified Plague-proof friends (Don’t rely on this as your “Plan A” just yet): Some people have already survived the plague, and are now immune! This means both Islanders and Joes can interact with no trouble (provided they’re genuinely immune and not an asymptomatic carrier). If Joes can interact with more guaranteed plague-proof frends than non-plague-proof friends, they’ll be able to satisfy their social needs more while the Islanders continue being able to minimize risk. Of course, being able to print a certificate verifying that you’re immune and not a carrier is probably still a longer way away. With that in mind, there are some much more tractable solutions

Segregate the pool: This might be tricker with some house setups than others. If some Islanders can afford it, escaping to AirBnBs, mobile homes, or homes in more sparsely-populated areas might be preferable to arguing with Joes to no end.

Keep groups small if there must be groups: For example, if a house has two Joes that want to invite friends to join, stick with just the friends that are mutuals, and select only the 1 closest of the mutuals.

Talk it out with a Referee present: People from these groups might have some difficulty empathizing with each other. Ideally, you can find a non-Islander and a non-Joe that can explain the goals of both sides, establish the driving motivations, and find any possible common ground. Without this crucial first step, attempts at changing behavior by either group will backfire. With such understanding, the groups might change their behavior voluntarily.

Find something to bond over: Solving this will be smoother if you have a good rapport with your housemates. If you have some kind of established routine like a weekly house meeting, this is even better. Having pre-scheduled periods where eveyone is working together will make navigating conflict much easier. Of course, if the usual schedule is distrupted (for obvious reasons) right now, there are still ways of doing things for each other virtually. This could be anything from brainstorming over a Zoom chat, or syncing when everyone watches a movie together.

Some of you reading this might already be experiencing this, and I highly encourage you to share your own advice and experiences. Hopefully soon we can see masks as just another passing fashion trend without much memory for why they became so popular, much like how people forgot how legwarmers protected against ankle-biting chihuauas

Cited as:

  title   = "COVID Conflict Resolution",
  author  = "McAteer, Matthew",
  journal = "",
  year    = "2020",
  url     = ""

If you notice mistakes and errors in this post, don’t hesitate to contact me at [contact at matthewmcateer dot me] and I will be very happy to correct them right away! Alternatily, you can follow me on Twitter and reach out to me there.

See you in the next post 😄

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