Risk Perceptions – Coronavirus A Case Study

In this post, we’ll explore risk perceptions and how our opinions may not match the actual risk.

In previous posts, we’ve explored risk and decision making around risks, but how do our perceptions and influences around risk impact our decision making? 

What is risk perception?

People do not make decisions based solely on empirical data. Decision making is influenced by a variety of factors that include an individual’s expertise, personal experiences, and more. When it comes to evaluating risks or situations that could pose harm to ourselves or a loved one, we make decisions based on several factors.

Three broad factors include:

  • the degree to which a risk is understood.
  • the degree to which it evokes a feeling of dread.
  • the number of people exposed to the risk.

While these factors break down further into at least 14 sub-factors we can see how emotions impact the way we understand risk and react to threats.

Let’s look at the coronavirus.

As of January 31, 2020, the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has infected at least 9,829 individuals leading to 213 deaths, with the overwhelming majority of cases isolated to China. If we look at the broad factors that impact risk perceptions, we can begin to understand why this outbreak is viewed as a significant health risk.

Currently, the virus has no known cure beyond controlling symptoms. Researchers are working on developing a vaccine, but that takes time. It invokes feelings of dread, especially this virus because it’s a new and emerging risk from a densely populated country, and we know the virus can be spread person to person. This is especially true for the timing of the 2019-nCoV outbreak as it occurred during a major festival where people traveled both domestically and internationally to celebrate, thus increasing the chances of spreading the disease.

These factors increased people’s fears and increased the publicity of the outbreak. Additionally, media outlets are reporting on the disease, which increases knowledge around the disease and can increase public anxieties.

But, is the reaction to the 2019-nCoV warranted?

Let’s look at the seasonal flu.

Influenza (flu) season begins around October 1 and can go until the end of May. As of January 25, 2020, the United States of America Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that the annual flu has infected between 19-26 million Americans and contributed to approximately 10,000-25,000 deaths.

That means between 5.8-7.9% of the USA has been infected with the flu, compared to 0.0007% of China’s population infected with 2019-nCoV.

While scientists work to create a vaccine to prevent 2019-nCoV, researchers in the USA have developed and distributed the flu vaccine to help prevent and lessen the impact of the seasonal flu. However, many Americans choose not to get vaccinated.

Let’s look at the flu vaccine.

Season flu vaccines can be highly effective; in fact, in 2017-2018, the vaccines prevented an estimated 6.2 million influenza illnesses and 5,700 influenza-associated deaths. However, for a variety of reasons, people choose not to get the seasonal flu vaccine or any vaccines at all. People make this choice even though the evidence shows there is no increased risk of death associated with getting the vaccine at the population level (1, 2) and the vaccines are proven effective at lessening or preventing illnesses, such as the seasonal flu, that can lead to death.

What does it all mean?

If you look at the numbers, it’s clear to see that the seasonal flu is a far more significant health burden than the 2019-nCoV, yet, we are reacting with more intensity to the 2019-nCoV outbreak than the seasonal flu. If we look at the broad factors influencing our risk perception, it makes sense that we would react with a stronger emotion to the 2019-nCoV outbreak than the flu outbreak even though the flu risk is a far greater danger to our health.

If we look at the flu perceptions, we are very familiar with the flu. It happens yearly, we have a vaccine to help prevent severe flu cases, and we are familiar with best practices to avoid getting the flu. Such familiarity can skew our perceptions of the actual risk, especially when the risk doesn’t receive wide-spread publicity.

We need to be aware of the factors that bias our perceptions of risk. To make effective decisions, we need to look closely at the facts and make decisions we know will have a positive impact on our health. For example, we know basic protocols for preventing many illnesses include regular doctor visits, regularly washing our hands with soap and water, getting proven-vaccines promptly, and avoiding close contact with people who may be ill.

We all have biases and perceptions, but by evaluating these perceptions, we can make informed decisions.

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