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Who’s Afraid of COVID-19?

Summary:
Dismissing or downplaying the risks of COVID-19 is a grave mistake. But so is embracing fear-based policies, which ultimately generate more risks – such as economic hardship, food insecurity, and generalized anxiety – than they mitigate. MUMBAI – Humans are bad at assessing risk even in the best of times. During a pandemic – when the disease is unfamiliar, people are isolated and stressed, and the death toll is rising – our risk perception becomes even more distorted, with fear often overwhelming reason. This is a recipe for disastrous policy mistakes. How Will the Great Cessation End? PS OnPoint Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

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Dismissing or downplaying the risks of COVID-19 is a grave mistake. But so is embracing fear-based policies, which ultimately generate more risks – such as economic hardship, food insecurity, and generalized anxiety – than they mitigate.

MUMBAI – Humans are bad at assessing risk even in the best of times. During a pandemic – when the disease is unfamiliar, people are isolated and stressed, and the death toll is rising – our risk perception becomes even more distorted, with fear often overwhelming reason. This is a recipe for disastrous policy mistakes.

To be sure, the danger posed by the COVID-19 outbreak should not be underestimated. The experiences of Italy, Spain, and the United States, in particular, have shown that delayed action to limit the virus’s spread can lead to large-scale illness and death.

But blind panic does nobody any good. In many countries, especially in the developing world, it is leading to policies that generate more risks – such as economic hardship, food insecurity, and generalized anxiety – than they mitigate. Smart policymaking will require leaders and citizens alike to gain a broader perspective.

While it’s difficult to know COVID-19’s precise fatality rate, we are much better at counting fatalities than the number of people who are infected, since the latter requires testing on a massive scale. And from the fatality data, it is evident that the risk of death remains very low for most people – that is, anyone who is not elderly and has no comorbidities. In most developing countries, one has a much higher chance of dying in a road accident than from COVID-19. In India, more than 150,000 people die in road accidents each year.

But most people are not nervous wrecks when they drive on a highway, whereas many have been terrified to go outside since the pandemic began. The large literature in psychology on “salience” helps us understand this, as the Nobel laureate economist George Akerlof has shown.

Say you were looking to buy the safest-possible car. You would probably read up on models’ safety data – how many electronic or mechanical failures, accidents, or fatalities occurred for every, say, 10,000 cars on the road – and choose the model with the lowest number. But the night before you plan to purchase the car, you meet up with a friend, who tells you that a...

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