Not Me! What’s the Point of Knowing Our Risks?

Risk is an abstraction. It’s invisible. So people have a tough time wrapping their heads around questions of risk. How immediate is the risk? Is it big? Does it affect me? Am I putting others in danger? These are just a few of the questions that shape how we think about knowing our risks.

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, we’re getting a live demonstration of how different people process different risks.

The Intersection of Risks: Obesity and Other Chronic Diseases

It’s becoming increasingly clear that anyone can get the new coronavirus infection. However, the disease that results – COVID-19 – hits different people in very different ways. Early on, it was clear that older people took a big hit. That’s still true. But now, it’s increasingly clear that younger people can become seriously ill and die, too. For young and middle-aged adults, the markers of vulnerability are chronic diseases. This list is evolving every day.

Right now, CDC tells us that lung disease, heart disease, immune compromise, and severe obesity present the most notable risks for bad outcomes. It also mentions diabetes, liver disease, and renal renal failure as possible risk factors.

Relevant to obesity, a new observational study from Wuhan, China, examines the outcomes for 112 COVID-19 patients with pre-existing cardiovascular disease. The authors found that 88 percent of those who died had a BMI above 25. However, among those who survived, only 19 percent did. Note that the BMI threshold for obesity is lower in China, compared to the typical Western of 30.

What About Me?

One immediate response to all of this data about risk a simple question. So what? Is this a risk I need to worry about? Thus we saw lots of speculation that young people were ignoring risks of the pandemic. Images of spring break students in throngs on Florida beaches spread rapidly across social media. (We’re resisting the V-word.)

But if you look at research on public sentiment, it’s not so clear that attitudes break down along generational lines.  Likhitha Butchireddygari analyzed all the available polling data for FiveThirtyEight and concluded:

When you look at recent polls, there just isn’t any evidence that one age group is more concerned than another about the spread of the disease. And furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be an age gap in people’s willingness to adopt preventive measures.

It seems that people of any age can decide that this is not their problem. And likewise, people of any age can take it quite seriously.

Social Responsibility

So what’s the point of knowing our risks? To us, it comes back to social responsibility. If we are personally at risk, we can act to manage our risks. If our risk is less, then we must take responsibility for protecting people who are more vulnerable.

When someone says COVID-19 is “only” a risk for older people, or people with pre-existing conditions, we should all recoil. If not, we put our own humanity at risk.

For more on some of the moral and ethical dimensions of how we perceive COVID-19 risks, click here and here. On the obesity as a risk factor for COVID-19 outcomes, we recommend this blog by Sue Pedersen. Finally, for more on our blind spots to risk, click here.

Selfie, photograph © Carlo “Granchius” Bonini / flickr

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March 24, 2020