Coronavirus: What It Tells Us About Risk

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“A newly discovered disease,” perhaps one of the worst possible articles to find in a sentence, particularly when you’re scanning the headlines. When people first read just a few short weeks ago about the Wuhan coronavirus — a respiratory virus that began infecting people in the mainland of China, it didn’t take long for panic to spread. Things weren’t helped by reports that the Chinese government initially suppressed knowledge of the situation or that cases were confirmed in the United States at a time when relations between the two countries are not particularly friendly. There are of course also dangerous bits of misinformation that inevitably leaked after the fact — such as the notion that drinking bleach can cure the disease, or oregano oil — both of which are demonstrably false.

In the sudden panic following the news of an outbreak, it’s easy to overlook a few important factors. First of all, the majority of people infected with the pneumonia-like Wuhan virus have made full recoveries. The mortality rate from Wuhan is also much lower than that of the SARS outbreak from 2002 to 2003, and the majority of its victims were either elderly or already suffered from compromised immune systems.

For this reason, public health experts like Amira Roess, an epidemiologist at George Mason University say that fear of the virus outside mainland China is largely unnecessary and counterproductive — that panicking over it is capable of doing more harm than good. The Guardian recently reported about how this has already surfaced as blatant racism and xenophobia, with students who traveled to China in the last 17 days being barred from attending school in Toronto. Businesses throughout Hong Kong and South Korea have put up signs banning customers from mainland China. This fear of the unknown, as Roess calls it, has a tendency to manifest in some of our darker impulses.

Psychological studies have long suggested that unusual threats tend to make people more anxious than familiar ones. People tend to be terrible at assessing risks. While there’s a 1 in 7 chance of dying from heart disease, something largely preventable by exercising and making healthier food choices, people tend to agonize over things like contracting a rare, exotic disease like the coronavirus or being murdered by a foreign terrorist, even though you’re more likely to be killed by your own furniture.

Consequently, the ways of preventing coronavirus from spreading are simple, everyday precautions like washing your hands regularly and coughing into your elbow. The seasonal flu poses a much higher risk — and is a more likely threat but people routinely avoid getting their yearly flu shots. Experts, however, hope that people taking precautions against the coronavirus will lead to lower rates of the flu this year.

The same tricks that we usually think of to strengthen our immune system are all at play here. Even in developed countries, micronutrient deficiencies are common where people lack zinc, selenium, or vitamins A, C, and E — all of which play a role in the way the immune system functions. Precautions like taking a single multivitamin or mineral supplement can help, as well as adequate sleep and minimizing stress. They’re basic rules to live by that can also stave off more serious infections and health complications that we should be more concerned about.

Why aren’t we good at assessing risk? One experiment suggests that we often double-count base rates. We might be presented with a statistic — in this case being told that the weather forecast in a given city is 30 percent — in both Phoenix and Seattle. However, we try to contextualize the information we’re given — so when the participants were asked which city they’d be more likely to bring an umbrella to, they overwhelmingly picked Seattle — based on the stereotype that it often rains more in Seattle. You might be told that your likelihood of having a heart attack — being a nonsmoker, is 8 percent, and assume that your risk is actually less because you don’t smoke, even though the number takes this into account. Things can get even worse when we’re presented with unfamiliar measuring units and have no real frame of reference to picture the information we’re being given. In the context of an outbreak, any number in the thousands sounds intimidating.

Finally, the way information is worded inevitably leads people astray. Saying an instance is improbable or unlikely, for example, is largely puzzling to most people. It really refers to an outcome that almost never happens, something that has an approximately 0 percent chance of occurring, but the subjects of a study said they believed it meant a result that happens between 10 to 30 percent of the time.

While assessing risk is difficult, all too often, conveying that risk to people is equally difficult — and the task is even more daunting when it requires you to communicate statistics. On the other hand, there are a few positive highlights to the coronavirus story that are all too often buried under the morbid details — such as the fact that the disease was discovered so early. With historic speed, the virus was detected and quickly identified as an undiscovered virus and within a week, scientists had already successfully sequenced its genome — information that was quickly shared with labs in other countries, meaning that a vaccine is not far off. While our primal fears can still cause us more grief and fear than necessary, we have modern science to allay those fears.

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