The coronavirus outbreak has killed more than 30,000 people globally and the disease is now infecting people at a faster pace. It took three months for the first 100,000 cases, but only 12 days for the next 100,000. Numbers have increased to over 600,000 infections, in part, because of increased testing. Covid-19 has spread to 160 countries, resulting in nationwide lockdowns to “flatten the curve” enough to dampen what would otherwise be a tidal wave of cases.
How the world is reacting to the pandemic, which has killed far less people than the common flu, illustrates the subconscious anchoring biases in how we think about risk, as well as the impulses that often guide our responses. We overreact to epidemics, terrorist attacks and other extreme events, even when our personal risk is infinitesimal. Yet, we are less attentive to other threats that are far more likely to harm us, such as driving or the flu.
Driving kills over 40,000 Americans every year but we fear terrorism which kills fewer than 100. Influenza kills at least 30,000 Americans every flu season and sickens as much as 20 percent of the population, but because most of us have had the flu and survived, we avoid getting a flu shot. The vaccination rate for the 2019–20 flu season was less than 50 percent.
As we have seen since the start of the outbreak, many individuals who get the novel coronavirus never become sick. Most infected people experience nothing worse than seasonal flu symptoms, but the mind has its own ways of measuring danger. Covid-19 hits nearly every cognitive trigger that we have—it can be fatal, it’s invisible and hard to protect against, exposure is involuntary and it’s not clear the authorities are in control of the situation. That causes a global wave of anxiety.
Hyperbolic social media coverage exacerbates the risk perception, as it allows us to have a more intimate experience with the threat. Visual graphics from John Hopkins University give the false impression that the whole world is infected. Europe’s total of more than 300,000 cases is 0.06 percent of their population, but the red dots make it appear the entire continent is in danger. The total number of cases in China were only 0.01 percent of the population.
Source: Johns Hopkins University (Coronavirus Resource Center)
The coronavirus triggers thinking about the 1918 Spanish flu, which infected a third of the world’s population and killed 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans.
We have heard years of warnings about lethal pandemics and Bill Gates has stated that Covid-19 is behaving a lot like the “once-in-a-century pathogen” he has been worried about. British epidemiologist Dr. Ne...