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protest, covid and the social construction of risk

The purpose of this post is to discuss how Americans assess risk in light of COVID. In the last month or so, we’ve seen Americans break lock down and social distancing for many reasons. Most notably, we saw thousands of people across the nation appear for political demonstrations. At first, there were pro- and anti-lockdown protests. Later, we saw anti-racism protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. Other people broke lock down for religious reasons, jobs, and entertainment, like going to the beach.

The purpose in drawing attention to these mass gatherings is not to say that they are right or wrong, but to use them as an example of revealed preference. Given what we know about COVID, a lot of people seem comfortable in accepting a slightly higher mortality risk so they can mobilize for social change, engage in religion, find jobs, and enjoy life. This is not unexpected as people accept risk for many other activities such as driving a car (40k deaths in 2017), hospital acquired infections (99k deaths in 2013), and narcotics and alcohol consumption (67k deaths in 2018). In other words, COVID-2019 is will claim 200,000 lives in 2020, which two to five times the rate of some risks that people already accept. It should not be surprising that people are breaking lock downs for COVID.

In normative terms, I am not dismayed by this, given that COVID fatalities are disproportionately concentrated among the elderly and those in nursing homes. Thus, the risk to non-elderly, non-immune compromised people is quite low and comparable to other mortality causes that we don’t think about much. So, it doesn’t seem horrible if people start resuming parts of their lives. Perhaps the main policy directive should be to erect a barrier between the elderly and non-elderly, rather than engage in society wide lock down.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 1, 2020 at 2:38 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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  1. The evidence post-protest from states with high levels of testing–including my own state of RI–suggests that the protests did not spread disease. This is likely because they took place outside and because protesters had significance compliance with masking requirements. The lesson I believe you can learn from the protests is that outdoor activities with masking are probably safe, even with larger crowds than might be ideal from an epidemiological perspective, and thus we should stop shutting down beaches and parks.

    However, the risks to indoor gatherings remain very high, and looking only at mortality is leaving younger folks with a false sense that things are not that bad. The illness can last over three months, even for young and healthy people, and can leave them with long-term disability including kidney damage, heart disease, and respiratory impairment that may make the lives they have been living impossible. The degree to which the risk of long-term disability has been underreported, especially outside the New York metropolitan area, is leaving people with a profound misunderstanding of what they face if they become ill.

    Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves that the dividing line is not elderly vs. non-elderly, it is more accurately prexisting conditions vs. none. Many people who are not elderly have lung, heart, or other conditions that exacerbate COVID, including people who–because of our country’s inexcusable lack of medical care–do not even know they have them. For instance, about half of all Americans have cardiovascular disease (mostly high blood pressure, a condition especially related to COVID risk).

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    Mikaila

    July 5, 2020 at 11:37 pm

  2. […] acquired infections. And we recently had 40,000 auto fatalities in the US (See this earlier post: https://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2020/07/01/protest-covid-and-the-social-construction-of-risk/). The point is not to minimize these horrible deaths, but to point out that people seem to manage […]

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