Another COVID symptom: Being wrong about the facts

Meme Nation lists the currently known COVID-19 symptoms:

Image may contain: text that says 'COVID SYMPTOMS KNOW THE SYMPTOMS OF FOR CORONAVIRUS DSHS BREATH HEADACHE FEVER DRY COUGH CHILLS FATIGUE SHORTNESS SORE THROAT MUSCLE/BODY ACHE LOSS OF TASTE OR SMELL CONGESTION RUNNY NOSE NAUSEA DIARRHEA ATOPIC DERMATITIS DANDRUFF ITCHES DIAPER RASH POISON IVY RASH FROSTBITE TRENCH FOOT UNEMPLOYMENT BANKRUPTCY BUSINESS HOME FORECLOSURE TAX FORFEITURE FOOT FUNGUS BAD HAIR DAY NEARSIGHTEDNESS ASTIGMATISM SYPHILIS WELFARE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE POOR GAS ILEAGE HIGH UTILITY BILLS KARENITIS GINGIVITIS JOINT PAIN STUMPED TOE TENNIS ELBOW ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION'

There is another symptom, reported by Franklin Templeton:

The first round of our Franklin Templeton–Gallup Economics of Recovery Study has already yielded three powerful and surprising insights:

  1. Americans still misperceive the risks of death from COVID-19 for different age cohorts—to a shocking extent;
  2. The misperception is greater for those who identify as Democrats, and for those who rely more on social media for information; partisanship and misinformation, to misquote Thomas Dolby, are blinding us from science; and
  3. We find a sizable “safety premium” that could become a significant driver of inflation as the recovery gets underway.

What? The party that supposedly follows the science …

… gets the science wrong?

Six months into this pandemic, Americans still dramatically misunderstand the risk of dying from COVID-19:

  1. 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%.
  2. Americans believe that people aged 44 and younger account for about 30% of total deaths; the actual figure is 2.7%.
  3. 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.

This misperception translates directly into a degree of fear for one’s health that for most people vastly exceeds the actual risk: we find that the share of people who are very worried or somewhat worried of suffering serious health consequences should they contract COVID-19 is almost identical across all age brackets between 25 and 64 years old, and it’s not far below the share for people 65 and older.

The discrepancy with the actual mortality data is staggering: for people aged 18–24, the share of those worried about serious health consequences is 400 times higher than the share of total COVID deaths; for those age 25–34 it is 90 times higher. The chart below truly is worth a thousand words:

Our question asks about fear of serious health consequences, not fear of death, but the evidence to-date indicates that the two follow a very similar age distribution; indeed the CDC has clearly stated on its website that “Among adults, the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, with older adults at the highest risk.” Recent concerns of possible adverse long-term consequences are by necessity speculative, since we obviously do not have long-term data yet.

On to the next point:

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.

Our susceptibility to how the information is presented also plays a role. The same data can be portrayed in different forms on a graph—some reassuring and some alarming. Our study finds that how the data are presented has a very strong impact on people’s attitudes. For example, respondents who were shown COVID-19 case trends for Texas and Florida in isolation were much less willing to reopen schools and businesses than those who were shown the same trends compared to New York. And more alarming graphics tend to be used more frequently, as they generate greater engagement.

Note: Rate expressed as deaths per million residents. Source: USA Facts: usafacts.org
This misinformation has a very concrete adverse impact. Our study results show that those who overstate deaths among young people are more cautious about making purchases, more reluctant to travel, and favor keeping businesses and schools shut.

Here again, we find a significant difference across partisan lines. According to our study, political affiliation is as powerful as age in predicting whether someone would be likely to eat at a restaurant indoors; Democrats have roughly the same willingness to eat in a restaurant at 25% capacity as Republicans do in a restaurant at full capacity. Individual risk from COVID-19 depends on age and health, but perceived risk depends on one’s politics— and it’s perceived risk that drives behavior. Conversely, previous Gallup research has found that Republicans have been less likely to accept public health guidelines like wearing a mask, regardless of the local rate of infection—again evidence that partisanship plays an important role.

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.

Click on the link for the third piece of depressing news.

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