Giant corporations, governments, and individuals are making decisions that they hope will reduce the risk of spreading the new corona virus – but not all of these tough calls are based solely on the latest health information. The factors that have resulted in people imposing two-week travel restrictions, wearing face masks, or canceling the Mobile World Congress are far more complex and are based on what scientists do not know as they know.
Responses to public health problems are mediated through more than just public health evidence or recommendations from public health experts. "It also depends on what other social and cultural influences there are," says Megan Jehn, who studies global health at Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change. “It depends on how different decisions are made or structured. The bottom line is that people don't make decisions based on empirical data. “
The World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the coronavirus an internationally worrying public health emergency. At this point, however, the virus does not appear to be widespread in any country other than China, where the vast majority of cases are. The WHO has not recommended that groups cancel meetings or meetings outside of China. In the United States, Disease Control and Prevention Centers (CDC) continue to repeat in press calls that face masks are not recommended. But cancellations and closings pile up just as quickly as face masks fly off the shelves.
People make decisions during epidemics based on the risk they perceive to be the disease. The problem is that there is usually a significant difference between the occurrence of the risk and the actual risk to which you are exposed. This perceived risk is affected by a handful of factors, including the size of the threat, the type of information they collect about the threat, and the type of action others take.
The threat posed by the new corona virus is still unknown, which makes it seem more daunting than it could actually be. "This unknown risk makes it seem riskier," says Gretchen Chapman, professor of social and decision science at Carnegie Mellon University. "Imagine you had two diseases, both of which had a three percent mortality rate, but one rate was ambiguous and could change, and the other was really safe. The one who had ambiguities seems more scary. "
Information spreads differently from online epidemics today, and people look for and believe disease information differently than they did before," said David Abramson, associate professor at New School of Global Public Health at York University. He says it is much easier to get misleading, inflammatory, or false information about this virus ̵
An important piece of information, however, is what people see from their colleagues and those around them, says Abramson. "It's often a predictor of what you're going to do," he says. "If you walk down the street and half of the people wear masks, do you think I should do the same?"
When companies, organizations and governments weigh up their reactions to outbreaks, your perception of risk is also influenced by politics and business. Groups that make decisions take into account the occurrence of actions, how accountable they would be if something bad happened, and the impact on their reputation that could cause it. They also take external pressure into account: For example, several high-profile companies such as LG and Sony withdrew their appearances at the Mobile World Congress before the event was officially canceled.
The relative contribution of these factors to the decision-making process compared to the weight of public health recommendations depends on the specifics of each situation, Chapman says. "Perhaps, on average, it makes people more aggressive when it comes to taking action," she says.
If the Mobile World Congress had gone as planned, Abramson would probably not have put participants' health at risk if precautions were taken – it should take place in Spain, which is not active in spreading the virus. "They were careful and probably responded at the same time," says Abramson.
The overreaction led to a decision based on recognized public health practices. Isolating people from each other and canceling mass meetings can help prevent active diseases from spreading. But it is only effective if there are enough diseases to justify it, and only to a certain extent: for example, although China has closed cities affected by the virus, it may have been too late to spread stop until they put these measures in place. "Depending on how common the disease is, it can be easy to apply these measures too heavily," says Chapman.
Continuation of measures that do not comply with public health recommendations, such as ongoing world health travel restrictions. The organization has raised objections that could be done for other reasons if a group believes that this is at risk. "You could do it for other reasons, for example to control panic," says Jehn – and may see it as an even more important goal to keep your customers, participants or citizens calm.
The gap between perception of coronavirus risk and actual risk remains until scientists learn more about the actual risk and how well they can communicate it, she says. "And we still don't know how that will happen."