This article appeared in the February 28, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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Coronavirus, risk, and our perceptions

John Amis/AP
Personnel at the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) work the Emergency Operations Center in response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, among other things, Feb. 13, 2020, in Atlanta.

Health experts say the coronavirus is a threat almost tailor-made to induce fear.

It’s new. Scientists don’t fully understand it. News coverage of each new patient adds to the sense that it’s out of control.

It’s not a risk we’ve chosen to run, as is, say, driving a car.

Rolled together these attributes can produce a “crowding-out effect,” where our emotions override our cognitive faculties, says Ann Bostrom, a professor of public health at the University of Washington, in today’s New York Times.

We overlook things that might make us feel less fearful – such as a new study’s assertion that 81% of COVID-19 cases in China are mild. We disregard that many doctors say that right now it is more important to guard ourselves against the flu.

As of Feb. 28, Johns Hopkins University health care experts continue to say that “at this time the general risk of exposure to COVID-19 is very low in the United States,” though the worldwide number of cases continues to rise.

One problem in the U.S. may be that politicians are doing a lot of the coronavirus messaging. 

When people become anxious about disease outbreaks, they become more trusting of health experts, but not of government officials per se, according to Shana Gadarian, a professor of political science at Syracuse University and co-author of “Anxious Politics.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “should be out in front leading the messaging, not the White House,” Dr. Gadarian tweeted on Friday.

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This article appeared in the February 28, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 02/28 edition