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Your covid-19 risk: How to navigate this new world of uncertainty

Baffling statistics and their impact on our emotions can make it hard to evaluate risk in this pandemic. But there are simple steps you can take to put risk in context and feel more confident in your decisions

Health



21 October 2020

THE covid-19 pandemic recently passed the milestone of a million deaths, and infections continue to rise. For months to come, perhaps years, we will have to keep a balance between minimising the deaths and harms caused by the coronavirus and carrying on with life to maintain our economic livelihoods and mental well-being.

“Getting through this pandemic is essentially an exercise in risk management,” says Allison Schrager, an economist at the Manhattan Institute in New York. To do this well, we have to rely on the information we get from public health experts, the media and governments. We want to know how dangerous the virus is to us, and to friends or loved ones made perhaps more vulnerable by age or other factors. We want to know the risks stemming from the current surge in infection rates, so we understand whether measures such as renewed lockdowns are proportionate.

Risk communication is a tricky business even at the best of times, but in many countries, the covid-19 pandemic has brought a deluge of scary-sounding statistics and graphs about infection rates and rising death tolls. David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, has called it “number theatre”.

So how do we take the drama out of the theatre and come to a measured assessment of the uncertainties we face? There are no easy answers, but by understanding how our brains deal with risk and the pitfalls in the way numbers concerning …