Our responses to COVID-19 have been driven by facts and perceptions of risk. As vaccinations increase, is it time for these perceptions to change?

COVID-19, risk perceptions

A family travels on a motorbike in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after the government ended a lockdown of the city, 6 May 2021. (EPA Photo/Mak Remissa)

How are you feeling about COVID-19 today? Are you more or less concerned than you were last month? What activities do you think are safe for you?

If asked questions like these, most of us would answer by citing facts: for example, about how you do or don’t catch the disease, about vaccinations, variants, symptoms, statistics on cases and deaths — or about our own particular circumstances.

That is to say, we would try to give rational responses based on a selection of the available evidence, some of which may be anecdotal, or even misinformation.

However, lying behind our answers is a complex set of risk perceptions that we’ve each developed. These are not just based on facts, but on a whole set of factors, as academics have long recognised. In the case of COVID-19, these may include rational considerations such as age, amount of contact with other people, state of health and personal and family experience.

But a person’s emotional or psychological make-up, and religious or philosophical beliefs, will also contribute. Our risk perceptions could be influenced by fear, or anger, or anxiety, or grief, or economic hardship.

Some people may be more inclined than others to worry about their health. Some may listen to their pastors more than to their governments. And in the United States, researchers at Brown University found that “political partisanship was the strongest predictor of whether someone would wear a mask or practice social distancing.”

Perceptions about the risks of COVID-19 inform a range of behaviours.

Our feelings about risk have guided our behaviour. Some people sterilised everything that came into their homes. Others held clandestine wedding parties. Most of us settled somewhere in between.

Our risk perceptions also led us to have opinions about how other people should behave, prompting us sometimes to shake our heads disapprovingly at people whose calibration of risk appeared different to our own.

Each of us also had views about what governments should do. Most people — by no means all — accepted the need for lockdowns but objected if they seemed excessive, or too relaxed, or unfair or inconsistent, or too late, or inadequately applied. Handling of the pandemic has become a primary criterion for public judgments about governments’ performance.

Our personal sets of risk perceptions have been our governing principles for living through the crisis. How many of us found valid justifications for doing things — a family visit, perhaps — that were not strictly within the rules? Even COVID-19 deniers, who do not accept that the virus poses an exceptional risk, have had to make choices, for example about whether to break laws and defy lockdown measures.

Risk perceptions are hard to shake.

And once formed, our risk perceptions are hard to shake. This is why the success (so far) of vaccines in the Western world is not only a source of profound relief but also, for many, very unsettling — because they may force us to recalibrate our sense of risk.

Take, for example, a statement from the British government’s scientific advisers in early July about the spread of the Delta variant.

“All models,” they wrote in early July 2021, “show a period of extremely high prevalence of [COVID-19] infection lasting until at least the end of August.” In spite of Britain’s strong performance on vaccination, a level of hospitalisations similar to the very high levels of January 2021 could not be ruled out, though the number of deaths would be lower.

And so it turned out. In July, the number of new cases rose to the highest in the world. (It has now begun to fall, although hospitalisations are still rising.)

Until recently, the scientists’ warning would almost certainly have triggered a new lockdown. But far from cracking down, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson removed most restrictions on the public’s activities in July, inviting the wrath of doctors and scientists. Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation described a policy of allowing disease to spread as “moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity.”

There is no doubt that Johnson has taken the biggest gamble of his rollercoaster political life. If he has to introduce new restrictions, his premiership may be over.

But whatever one’s view about Britain’s “Freedom Day”, it does indicate that there comes a time in a pandemic when we need to revise our carefully developed personal risk matrices. After all, if vaccination does not allow us to begin to resume normal life, what is the point of getting vaccinated? For how long should governments have a greater than usual role in regulating our daily lives?

It may or may not be the right time for these questions. Britain’s situation is not the same as, for example, Australia’s, where each cluster of cases brings a new lockdown because a relatively small proportion of the population has been vaccinated.

Nor is it the same as in the United States, where many restrictions have been dismantled but the Delta variant is threatening states with low vaccine take-up.

COVID-19 vaccines force reckoning with our risk perceptions.

But as governments pass the baton back to citizens, we confront a new set of dilemmas about our personal behaviour.

How does our own thinking about risk need to be adjusted? Is it safe to go to restaurants, theatres, music festivals, football games? If we do, how will we travel there? Should we take a test? Should we wear masks? Should other people wear masks? And so on.

If the British experiment works, other governments, too, will increasingly relinquish their rule-setting role and throw the responsibility back to their citizens. It will be up to us to protect ourselves and others.

That means fraught discussions about what is and is not safe in households across the Western world. These are challenging: even within families, each person has their own calibration of risk. And it’s an emotional business: the government minister in charge of England’s health system had to apologise after saying people should not “cower” from the virus — a word that implied that caution was a moral deficiency.

With more than four million people dead across the world from COVID-19, caution remains justifiable. Eventually, our perceptions will reach the point where most of us see negligible risk. In the meantime, our characters, our families and a host of other factors — including the facts — will continue to determine the choices we make.

Questions to consider:

  1. Looking back, what do you think were the main factors that contributed to your perception of risk from the pandemic?
  2. Is it the right time to change our risk perceptions? If not now, when?
  3. What is the proper role of governments in a pandemic, and what lessons should they learn from this one?
Alex Nicoll

Alexander Nicoll is a writer on defence and European issues. From 2003 to 2015, he was on the staff of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, where he was editor of the London think-tank’s annual review of international affairs. Previously he spent 18 years as a reporter and editor at the Financial Times, including as defence correspondent from 1997 to 2002. He began his career at Reuters as a correspondent in Hong Kong, Paris, Tehran and New York.

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EconomyHow risk perceptions affect our responses to COVID-19