Covid fears – why is it different for different people?

Two friends of mine sent me a few Facebook posts and asked me what I thought (because I am out of the social media). So let me share here, what I shared with them in case some readers find it useful.

Post 1 – A person was supposedly spreading Covid around. (I am not sure if he or she was doing this knowingly or unknowingly). What was definite was that this person was breaking the lockdown rules and was going around – and was allegedly evading calls from Health officials because his/her test returned positive.

Post 2 – FB users are arguing against the government decision to continue with the lockdown, and instead are proposing that Bhutan should start living with the virus. 

Well, let me explain these two cases as an academic/researcher. What does social science say about this behaviour and feelings? I will refrain from making any legal or moral judgment. Other professionals may do that if they wish.

The common thread that binds the two case scenarios is called the perception of risk – as in how people respond when confronted with external threats and risks. While it may sound like a common-sense to think that this virus is dangerous and we need to stay away from it, one psycho-social theory on this topic has a different take. How each one of us, as individuals, perceive a risk varies from person to person. It is considered as a subjective feeling and not an objective and universal realisation. It is even different from nation to nation and from profession to profession. It is also different between men and women, or between a daily-wage worker and an industrialist, or between a teenager and an adult. 

How individuals perceive a risk varies from person to person.

Strange, right? But it’s true. That’s why some people smoke although every research shows it will cause cancer. Then there are high-risks sports like rock climbing, bungee jumping, motor racing, skydiving where you are hundreds of times more likely to be killed than, say, if you play football. Same explanation goes for risky sexual behaviours and the increase in HIV/AIDS cases. We all perceive risks in different manners and indulge in risky behaviours because we are all different – psychologically and physiologically to start with – and followed by our socio-cultural circumstances and upbringing. One could also speculate something like: Even if Ebola hits us, there will be people, still, wandering around, or questioning the lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Psychologists have identified several factors that determine our perceptions of risk. I will explain a few here, and in brief: 

  • Familiarity – When the first covid patient was announced, Thimphu became a ghost town. Now we have 100+ case load appearing every day and “Red buildings” everywhere, but we want the PM to call off the lockdown. It is because we feel “familiar” with this whole issue. Besides, the never-changing public health messaging of “wash your hand” and “wear mask” reinforces this familiarity bias.
  • Personal agency to control the situation – We are told that if we are vaccinated, and if we mask up, stay away from crowds, and wash your hands regularly, we are safe. When we have some level of confidence that we can control some things, some of us will jump. Again, with messaging we have not moved on from these 4 do’s.
  • Physiological response – Two physiological responses are relevant here. First, our body’s production level of adrenaline and dopamine determines if we are natural-born risk takers. That’s why some people are sky jumpers and early adopters while others are no risk-takers at all. Second, fear activates the reptilian lobe of our brain. But this does not last long. Within minutes, actually, the neocortex and limbic areas begin to reactivate and people start reasoning and rationalising thereafter. And unless there is a new stimulus with new information and knowledge we will begin to form our own cognitive biases that best serve our personal interests.
  • Cost-benefits analysis – After the initial fears fade away, the rational brain also starts to do the cost-benefit analysis. Am I forgoing too many opportunities by staying put? Won’t we all die one day anyway? What is real risk? Is it worth taking? This explains why tobacco smugglers got into action, because there was a huge mark-up.
  • Fair Vs unfair debate. It is a natural tendency for people to always compare – and play the victim card. “It is not fair because they have monthly salary deposited while there is nothing for me”. “It is not fair that bordering towns remain in lockdown more than Thimphu or Paro”. “Why are some shops open, and mine is told to be closed?” And worse (I have heard one man say this), “This is a rich man disease and we are all locked up to protect the elites. It is not fair. I have nothing to lose if I die.”
  • The fear factor– How much do we have to fear? And here again, people will seek information from sources that fit their preconceived notion. Such as, the fatality rate of Omicron is 0.0025%, or 1 in 40,000, which is lesser than that of the common flu – and lot less than other diseases that we have been living with. Or, I know someone who got it and without coughing even once he was declared recovered. Your frontal neocortex will also starts philosophising after being in a hard lockdown for months. What is the use of living like this? What is the meaning of life? Third year into the pandemic, fear is the last thing that one wants to hear – or think about. So save your resources from saying that omicron is dangerous.
  • Life is precious but not everybody – Unfortunately different people value the preciousness of life differently. I am not talking about enlightened monks or my grandmother. In between the two lockdowns, and across the street I saw a worker cutting the tiles without mask. I told him that he might suffer from silicosis in the long run, besides catching covid. His reply was, “My life is worthless, la. I have nothing. I am not even married, Ha Ha Ha”.

So, to shout at someone, “Don’t you know that you will die?” or to remind that it is our collective gyenkhu (responsibility) or to say, “We have to protect the vulnerable” will have very little traction and buy-in, especially when the situation like this pandemic lingers on for so long. The collective becomes secondary when the bank balance is dropping like a rock – or when life itself begins to appear meaningless. Mind you, we are in the third year of the pandemic, and the end is nowhere in sight.

The physiological response to any threatening situation is termed as fight-or-flight mode, which is to either resist forcefully or to run for cover. From the Facebook posts that I have read, it appears that people have decided to resist it. Why and how we reached to this calls for another debate altogether. Again, these are purely brief academic assessments. It is for others to also chip in within their domains of expertise or responsibility, and ultimately for our leaders to make the tough call – based on everything that they can gather from everyone else.

However, understanding that each one of us perceive the risk in different manners – and that we are all different – psychologically and physiologically and not just socially or economically, is a good starting point to come up with better decisions, or to improve the public messaging through something called a strategic risk communication.



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