Evidence Suggests People Overestimate the Risks of COVID-19

One of the most surprising things to emerge from the pandemic, at least from a lockdown sceptic’s point of view, is how overwhelmingly the British public has backed the lockdowns. For example, a YouGov poll taken in March of 2020 found that 93% of people supported the first lockdown. Another poll taken in January of 2021 found that 85% of people supported the third lockdown.

While some lockdown sceptics claim these polls can’t be trusted, I suspect they’re not too far off the mark. And even if they do overstate support for lockdowns (due to unrepresentative samples or social desirability bias) the true number is unlikely to be more than 10 or 20 percentage points lower.

The high level of public support for lockdowns may explain why they’ve lasted as long as they have. Politics is notoriously short-sighted, so why would the Conservatives ease up on a policy that’s kept them ahead in the polls for most of the last 14 months?

Aside from the public’s longstanding reverence for the NHS, an obvious reason why support for lockdown is so high is that millions of people have been paid 80% of their wages to stay at home. In the absence of the Government’s unprecedented furlough scheme, many of these people would be out of work, and presumably much less supportive of lockdowns.

However, there might be a more important reason why support for lockdown is so high: the public overestimates the risks of COVID-19, especially the risks to young people. Let’s review the evidence.

In July of 2020, the consultancy Kekst CNC ran a poll asking Britons what percentage of the population has died of COVID-19. The correct answer at the time was around 0.1%. However, the median answer among respondents was 1%, and of those who ventured a guess (rather than saying “don’t know”) one in five said at least 6% of the population had died.

Last year, Gallup ran a poll for Franklin Templeton in which they asked Americans what percentage of people who’ve been infected with COVID-19 need to be hospitalised. Less than 20% of respondents gave the correct answer of “1–5%”. And a staggering 35% said at least half of those infected need to be hospitalised. Interestingly, Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to overestimate the risk of hospitalisation, as this chart reveals:

It should be noted that the poll also revealed some underestimation of risks on the part of Republicans. For example, 41% incorrectly stated that flu causes more deaths than COVID-19. This shows that results can vary depending on exactly which question you ask. (Notice that Republicans did overestimate the risk of hospitalisation; just to a lesser extent than Democrats.)

Likewise, a survey carried out by Ipsos MORI for Kings College London asked Britons what are the chances of needing hospital treatment if you catch coronavirus. The median answer among respondents was 30%, and of those who ventured a guess, one in four said the chances are at least 50%.

In March and April of last year, the economist Arthur Attema and colleagues carried out two surveys of the French population: one two weeks after the first lockdown began, and the other two weeks before it ended. They asked respondents, “Out of 100 people who are infected with the Coronavirus, how many of them die from the disease?”

In both surveys, the average answer was 16 (whereas the correct answer for Western populations is less than 1). The fact that the average in the second survey was no lower than the average in the first indicates that people’s understanding of the risks did not improve over time, despite more evidence accumulating that the IFR is less than 1%.

Members of the public seem to have a particularly skewed perception of the risk COVID-19 poses to younger people. The aforementioned Gallup poll asked Americans what percentage of those who’ve died were aged 24 and under. The correct answer at the time was around 0.1%, yet the average answer among Republicans was 8%, while the average among Democrats was 9%.

Likewise, a poll taken by Ipsos MRBI for The Irish Times asked people what percentage of those who’ve died were under the age of 35. The correct answer was around 1%, yet the average among respondents was 12%.

In November of 2020, Savanta ComRes ran a poll on behalf of The Conservative Woman and asked Britons to guess the average age of people who’ve died after testing positive for COVID-19. The correct answer is around 82. However, the median answer among respondents was 65.

Incidentally, one problem with asking people to estimate very small quantities (like the percentage of people who’ve died from COVID-19) is that humans have a tendency to revise small percentages upwards when they’re not sure. This “uncertainty-based rescaling” probably accounts for some of the overestimation in the surveys mentioned above.

However, taking all the evidence together, people – particularly in Britain – do seem to overestimate the risks of COVID-19. And this may help to explain their high level of support for lockdowns.

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