“We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” he said, just before declaring the pandemic. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.” – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization (WHO).
The new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is a highly infectious disease that caused an epidemic of acute respiratory syndrome (COVID-19). Between January and April 2020, the epidemic turned into a global pandemic from its centre of origin in Wuhan, China to now having reached most countries around the world. As of April 14th, 2020, over 126,000 people have died from COVID-19 globally. Men are at higher risk of dying than women (Caramelo, Ferreira, & Oliveios, 2020; Jin et al., 2020) and there are signs that in some countries, ethnic minorities may also be at higher risk (Garg, Kim, & Whitaker, 2020). On January 30th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern”. In this paper, we ask two critical questions; a) how concerned are people around the world? and b) what psychological factors determine their level of concern? As the number of deaths from the disease rises around the world, it is becoming increasingly important to understand public risk perception (Van Bavel et al., 2020). Current governmental responses range from social distancing and hygiene advice (e.g. Sweden) to complete lockdowns of the general population (e.g. Italy). These measures aim to prevent national health services from becoming overwhelmed by a sudden onslaught of cases. Yet, we know from past pandemics that the success of policies to slow down the rapid transmission of a highly infectious disease rely, in part, on the public having accurate perceptions of personal and societal risk factors. In fact, collectively, people’s behavior can fundamentally influence and alter the spread of a pandemic (Epstein et al., 2008; Funk et al., 2009; Reluga, 2010; Van Bavel et al., 2020). Threat appraisal and risk perception are core features of protection-motivation theory (Floyd, Prentice-Dunn & Rogers, 2000; Rogers, 1975) and as such, known to be important determinants of the public’s willingness to cooperate and adopt health-protective behaviors during pandemics, including frequent hand washing, physical distancing, avoiding public places, and wearing face masks (Bish & Michie, 2010; Leppin & Aro, 2009; Polleti, Ajelli, & Merler, 2011; Rubin et al., 2009; Rudisill, 2012; van der Weerd et al., 2011). In other words, accurate public risk perceptions are critical to effectively managing public health risks. Yet, although official health organizations have now established the pandemic to be an objective threat to public health, ringing the alarm bell “loud and clear”, as Slovic (1992) once stated, “risk does not exist independent of our minds and culture” (p. 690). Indeed, a large body of research over the last decades has shown that risk perception is a subjective psychological construct that is influenced by cognitive, emotional, social, cultural, and individual variation both between individuals and between different countries (Douglas & Wildavsky, 1983; Loewenstein et al., 2001; Leiserowitz, 2006; Joffe, 2010; Kasperson et al., 1988; Sjöberg, 2002; Wildavsky & Dake, 1990; Slovic, 2010; Slovic, Fischhoff, & Lichtenstein, 1982; van der Linden, 2015, 2017; WÅhlberg, 2001).