Democrats Still Dramatically Overestimate the Risks of COVID-19

In a previous post, I noted that people tend to overestimate the risks of Covid, especially the risks to young people – which are vanishingly small.

In a Gallup poll last year, 41% of Democrat voters in the U.S. said that the risk of hospitalisation is at least 50%! (And Republicans didn’t do much better). However, that poll was taken in December. Has people’s understanding improved since then?

According to a new poll, the answer is ‘not at all’. Gallup posed a similar question as before, only this time they asked about vaccinated and unvaccinated people separately.

Note: the questions were not identical. In last year’s poll, they asked, “What percentage of people who have been infected by the coronavirus needed to be hospitalised?” In the recent poll, they asked, “What percentage of people have been hospitalised due to the coronavirus?”

The denominator for the first question is ‘people who have been infected’, while the denominator for the second is ‘everyone’. However, many respondents may have assumed that the second question was referring to ‘people who have been infected’. This should be kept in mind when interpreting the results.

The chart below shows results for the version of the second question that asked about unvaccinated people:

Once again, 41% of Democrats (and 22% of Republicans) said that the risk of hospitalisation for those who aren’t vaccinated is at least 50%. The correct answer is less than 5%, so these respondents were off by a factor of more than 10. Only 42% of Republicans – and just 18% of Democrats – were in the right ball-park.

Democrats did do substantially better when asked about the risk to vaccinated people, as the chart below indicates. In this case, the majority of both groups were in the right ball-park. However, more than one in five respondents still gave an answer of 10% or more.

As I mentioned last time, part of this overestimation may reflect a general psychological tendency to overestimate small quantities; though I should stress, only part. After all, Republicans were much less likely to answer “50%” when the question referred to unvaccinated people.

It’s staggering that 18 months after the start of the pandemic, almost one third of Americans say the risk of being hospitalised from Covid if you’re not vaccinated is at least 50%. Clearly there has been a failure of communication on the part of public health authorities.

This finding may help to explain bizarre phenomena like the fact that young, fully vaccinated Americans are still wearing face masks outdoors.

One Stanford student, Maxwell Meyer, spent an hour ‘bike-spotting’ on a popular campus thoroughfare. For each bike that went past, he recorded whether the rider was wearing a helmet, a face mask, or both. Of the 400 cyclists that he observed, 34% were wearing a mask but no helmet! (And 7% were wearing both.)

Aside from some people simply being clueless about the risks, Meyer notes that wearing a mask has become a form of social signalling (‘I’m the sort of person who cares about doing his part’). Though of course, wearing a mask under such circumstances does approximately nothing – other than raise the question of how on earth you got into Stanford.

Even after lockdowns ended, various types of ‘Covid theatre’ have dragged on for months. This isn’t so surprising when you consider people’s skewed perceptions of the risks.

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December 2022
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