This report, written by Sonal Desai, on Americans’ enormous misconceptions about the risks posed by covid-19 is well worth a careful read . It’s not long. (I thank my colleague Dan Klein for alerting me to this report.)
Here are some highlights:
Six months into this pandemic, Americans still dramatically misunderstand the risk of dying from COVID-19:
- On average, Americans believe that people aged 55 and older account for just over half of total COVID-19 deaths; the actual figure is 92%.
- Americans believe that people aged 44 and younger account for about 30% of total deaths; the actual figure is 2.7%.
- Americans overestimate the risk of death from COVID-19 for people aged 24 and younger
by a factor of 50; and they think the risk for people aged 65 and older is half of what it actually is (40% vs 80%).
These results are nothing short of stunning. Mortality data have shown from the very beginning that the COVID-19 virus age-discriminates, with deaths overwhelmingly concentrated in people who are older and suffer comorbidities. This is perhaps the only uncontroversial piece of evidence we have about this virus. Nearly all US fatalities have been among people older than 55; and yet a large number of Americans are still convinced that the risk to those younger than 55 is almost the same as to those who are older.
For the last six months, we have all read and talked about nothing but COVID-19; how can there be still such a widespread, fundamental misunderstanding of the basic facts? Our poll results identify two major culprits: the quality of information and the extreme politicization of the COVID-19 debate:
- People who get their information predominantly from social media have the most erroneous and distorted perception of risk.
- Those who identify as Democrats tend to mistakenly overstate the risk of death from COVID-19 for younger people much more than Republicans.
This, sadly, comes as no surprise. Fear and anger are the most reliable drivers of engagement; scary tales of young victims of the pandemic, intimating that we are all at risk of dying, quickly go viral; so do stories that blame everything on your political adversaries. Both social and traditional media have been churning out both types of narratives in order to generate more clicks and increase their audience.
The fact that the United States is in an election year has exacerbated the problem. Stories that emphasize the dangers of the pandemic to all age cohorts and tie the risk to the Administration’s handling of the crisis likely tend to resonate much more with Democrats than Republicans. This might be a contributing factor to why, in our survey results, Democrats tend to overestimate the risk of dying from COVID-19 for different age cohorts to a greater extent than Republicans do.
This misinformation also causes another fundamental problem. The policy decision of what activities to keep shut and for how long is a very difficult and consequential one. It requires balancing two opposite effects of uncertain scale: on the one hand the benefits in terms of slowing COVID-19 contagion, on the other hand the harm to the economy and to people’s long-term health and livelihoods. This decision is strongly influenced by public perceptions of dangers, not only because politicians are sensitive to the public’s concerns but also because politicians are people too, subject to some of the same biases. Our poll results suggest fundamental misperceptions of the risk of death or serious adverse health consequences from COVID-19 could be distorting these decisions.