I listen to the radio everyday on my drive to work and I’ve been hearing a lot about COVID-19 (Coronavirus). Tales of its spread across the globe, proposed plans for preventative action, and tips for staying busy in self-quarantine are now mainstays of my commute. All this despite the risk of infection where I live in Canada remaining low, at the time of writing.
Yet, the level of risk doesn’t seem to correlate with the behavior of many Canadians.
We’ve all seen social media posts or news reports of shelves across the country empty of hand sanitizer and facemasks, pasta and toilet paper. A friend shared on Twitter that her hair salon has cancelled her appointment, citing risk of coronavirus as the reason for this self-imposed shutdown (despite only 2 reported cases in the entire province at the time).
What is driving this seemingly disproportionate response?
It is well established that the response to the threat of disease is driven by people’s perception of risk (1). That is, however great or small we personally believe our risk to be is often a better predictor of our behavior than is an objective metric of that risk (2). In turn, our perceptions of risk are influenced by information we encounter in the media (1). Yet, as mentioned, the broadcasters here have consistently drawn attention to the relatively low risk at present. What then can explain the disparity?
At the start of an epidemic (or now, a pandemic) information received about the crisis by the media greatly influences our behavior (3), which in turn affects the efficacy of societal responses necessary to contain the spread. However, the information we receive is no longer like what it once was: dependent on geography (4). Most of us regularly use social media — I personally am on Twitter and Instagram multiple times a day — and receive much of our information and news headlines from both friends and strangers, at home and across the globe. This information can be consumed by anyone, and although it is accessed within a cluster of ‘followers’, these ‘followers’ are not close in physical proximity (4). Though a pandemic is a global struggle, the transmission risk across different countries is not equal, and so the perception of risk and the corresponding responses should not be either. For those of us on social media, we are constantly exposed to information that does not necessarily pertain to our local communities, and therefore our reactions may not correlate to local disease risk (4).
In a pandemic, information on the risk of infection is often coupled with information on prevention behaviors — and the former can impact the uptake of the latter. Both types of information have been visible on social media in recent weeks. More recently, social media posts have encouraged social distancing by deeming those who continue going out to bars and restaurants as “irresponsible”. My exposure over the past few days to this content resulted in feelings of guilt that led me to cancel a little getaway to a neighbouring community.
Whether it was aligned with actual risk or not, the quantity of the information being shared, and who is sharing this information, has undoubtedly influenced my uptake of preventative measures. Research suggests that such promotion of disease prevention behaviors on social media is actually quite effective (4,5). This is thought to be due to both ‘homophily’ in and ‘clustering’ of our virtual social networks (5). Homophily is “the tendency of people to associate with those who resemble them” (5), while clustering is the “tendency for people’s friends to be connected to each other through redundant ties” (5). In other words, we are more likely to adopt a health behavior if we know someone similar to us has done so, too (5).