Virus risk has not been made clear to youth: ex­perts

SIM­PLE, BLUNT MES­SAG­ING MAY BE ONLY WAY TO GET PAST YOUTHS’ FALSE SENSE OF SE­CU­RITY

Calgary Herald - - NEWS - RICHARD WARNICA

The pictures were im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore. It was a beau­ti­ful week­end in Van­cou­ver. The sun was out. The air smelled like wa­ter and trees. And the young, as the young do, were tak­ing full ad­van­tage. Even with the world on lock­down, they were out in droves, on the beaches, in back­yards. One group was spot­ted par­ty­ing on a rooftop, play­ing beer pong and eat­ing from a com­mu­nal grill. It was as if they all stopped lis­ten­ing af­ter “so­cial” and missed the part about “dis­tanc­ing.”

They’ve been dubbed “COVIDIOTS,” the peo­ple, many of them young, many of them young men, too self-ab­sorbed, too ill-in­formed or too thick-headed to be­lieve that so­cial dis­tanc­ing, self-isolation and pleas to stay at home ap­ply to them too.

They’ve made an easy punch­ing bag. In a time of global panic, fear goes down a lit­tle eas­ier when it’s leav­ened with a bit of hate.

But ex­perts in com­mu­ni­ca­tion and hu­man be­hav­iour be­lieve it’s a lit­tle more com­pli­cated than that. This isn’t just self­ish dum­mies be­ing dumb, they say. (Though there is some of that.) Hu­mans have a hard time tak­ing col­lec­tive risk se­ri­ously. “We are wired by evo­lu­tion to re­spond to im­me­di­ate threats,” said Robert Gifford, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy and en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Victoria. In a col­lec­tive risk sce­nario like this one, those threats need to be com­mu­ni­cated clearly, sim­ply and with­out con­fu­sion for the pub­lic to buy in. And far too of­ten, when it has come to COVID-19, that hasn’t hap­pened.

Even to­day, with much of the econ­omy shut down and most of the country stuck in­side, the col­lec­tive dan­gers of the pandemic aren’t al­ways be­ing com­mu­ni­cated to the pub­lic with enough force, be­lieves Yoni Freed­hoff, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of fam­ily medicine at the Univer­sity of Ottawa.

“My con­cern right now is that the way we re­port on (new) cases is flawed,” he said. “We keep talk­ing about 400 new cases or 500 (new) cases in On­tario, but that’s 500 con­firmed cases with lim­ited test­ing and 10,000 tests back­logged and test­ing re­stricted to a very spe­cific pop­u­la­tion. There’s tens of thou­sands of cases likely in On­tario right now. We should be lead­ing with that.”

Freed­hoff be­lieves those rel­a­tively low new case num­bers are part of what’s letting some peo­ple be­lieve, even now, that this is not go­ing to af­fect them.

“Ob­vi­ously, that false sense of se­cu­rity is go­ing to get dashed to hell in a week or two when we ex­pect to see more of the surge com­ing,” he said. “But per­haps with more ac­cu­rate or more re­spon­si­ble dis­cus­sion of case num­bers, even at the tweet level or the bul­let point level or the head­line level, more peo­ple might be tak­ing this more se­ri­ously.”

The prob­lem with pre­sent­ing an even mildly down­played risk is that most of our brains are al­ready wired to­ward op­ti­mism, said Gifford. “We have this kind of gen­eral bias that things will be okay, that I’m smarter than most peo­ple, that I’m bet­ter look­ing than most peo­ple. Things will work out,” he said. In life, that’s use­ful most of the time. It’s the kind of thing that helps peo­ple find mates and suc­ceed in school. “But if it’s a mat­ter of trans­mit­ting a dis­ease, it’s not such a good idea.”

So when peo­ple read about 500 new cases in the news, in a prov­ince as vast as On­tario, there are pow­er­ful forces in their brain telling them that the prob­lem can’t really be that bad.

All of that is dou­bly true for young peo­ple, es­pe­cially young men. A re­cent poll of Cana­di­ans in the Na­tional Post found 49 per cent of women said they were very wor­ried about the out­break com­pared with 30 per cent of men. And as re­cently as a week ago, much of the pub­lic in­for­ma­tion on COVID-19 could have been de­signed in a lab, so well was it cal­i­brated for young peo­ple to ig­nore it.

That’s not just true in Canada, ei­ther. “The mes­sag­ing we’ve had here (has been) 80 per cent of COVID cases are mild and it gen­er­ally only af­fects older peo­ple,” said Lee Ash­ton, a post-doc­toral re­searcher at the Univer­sity of New­cas­tle in Aus­tralia. “So a lot of younger peo­ple are there­fore as­sum­ing that they’re im­mune to it. They think it’s not go­ing to af­fect them so they don’t see it as a ma­jor is­sue.”

Young men, es­pe­cially, are a no­to­ri­ously hard group to reach with mes­sages about health and risk, said Ash­ton, whose re­search in­volves young men, mes­sag­ing and nu­tri­tion. If it were up to him, he’d dumb it all down. He’d stop talk­ing about “so­cial dis­tanc­ing” and “flat­ten­ing the curve.”

“I would just be as clear as pos­si­ble,” he said. “Three words: stay at home. And only leave to shop … once a week. And that’s it.”

That doesn’t just go for young peo­ple, ei­ther. Clear, con­sis­tent, un­com­pli­cated mes­sages are cru­cial for driv­ing home dan­ger and chang­ing pub­lic be­hav­iour for all de­mo­graph­ics,” said Elias Fernán­dez Domin­gos, a Span­ish re­searcher who stud­ies col­lec­tive risk.

Sto­ries, the­o­ries or mes­sages from peo­ple with plat­forms or power that muddy the wa­ter or give op­ti­mists a cog­ni­tive way out can be quite lit­er­ally fa­tal in a sit­u­a­tion like this. “This is a big prob­lem,” Fernán­dez Domin­gos said.

PAUL KANE/GETTY IM­AGES

Po­lice in Perth, Aus­tralia, en­cour­age beach­go­ers to in­crease their space on Thurs­day, as au­thor­i­ties world­wide strug­gle to bring home the mes­sage of so­cial dis­tanc­ing.

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