Lejla Sunagic, PhD student, is working on a project that aims to better understand how Syrian refugees in the Middle East make decisions on whether to stay in the first countries of asylum or move forward.
Despite the WHO’s call for a unified, global response which is deemed the only effective way to combat the COVID-19 crisis, not all countries follow prevailing measures of lockdown or sever restriction of movement.
One of those countries that is not following the prevailing measures is Sweden. Instead, Sweden relies on the responsibility of its citizens to judge their risk of infection and make decisions that will be safe for themselves and for the rest of society. The majority of the Swedes are comfortable with such a response, to the surprise of other nations, including the neighbouring ones.
The critics of the Swedish approach argue that despite the government’s trust in the self-discipline of individuals, an authority that leaves freedom to its citizens in this crisis is certainly exposing them to risk, especially since COVID-19 is an unknown virus.
Its long-term consequences are unpredictable. Why citizens in countries with relatively similar features support different approaches, taken by their respective governments, is a complex question that requires a multi-disciplinary effort to answer.
The Perception Of Risk
Risk management research may contribute to the explanation.
Risk perception theory engages with interesting perspectives while trying to explain – to the extent possible – how we judge and make decisions under risk and uncertainty. In addition to cognitive processes, that inform our risk perception and defines our behaviour in risky situations, socio-cultural factors can help explain differences in risk-related behaviour.
Accordingly, social trust, the trust in authorities who manage the hazard- related to judgement of risk is important to individuals who have little knowledge about the risk.
Using Sweden as an example, the vast majority of the general populace trusts the Government’s response, while critical voices come from within minority groups, i.e. epidemiologists.
This is not because of the latter’s complete understanding of the COVID-19 consequences (without minimizing the importance of the knowledge of virology), but rather, as per risk perception theory, due to a strong negative correlation between trust in and perceived risk from the people who have expert knowledge of the concept of risk.
On the other hand, positive correlation between trust and people’s lack of knowledge of the risk, can explain why the general public around the world mostly respects their governments’ measures.
In line with other preventive measures, Sweden adopted a strategy of combatting the COVID -19 by combatting panic. It seems to be succeeding. An explanatory factor can be the so called control element. People under lockdown or in quarantine around the world are deemed safer than citizens who continue to work and commute in countries with less strict prevention measures.
Still, people under lockdown seem to feel a bigger stress and anxiety. Research argues that risk taking or risk exposure give individuals a feeling of gaining a minimum of control over themselves and over the context. Although protected, citizens under lockdown feel powerless, while in the case of others the risk exposure might give them a sense of agency.
Furthermore, the identity factor has been called in to help explain reaction to risk. Risk-related behaviour can serve the affirmation of one’s identity. This relates to the former observation of the Swedes, subscribing to a culture of self-discipline and collective responsibility that is the main protective measure in the country, so far.
All these factors entered the field of the risk perception to highlight the role of subjectivity in how we respond to risk and to challenge the earlier premise in the research which implied that we are rational decision-makers.
Nowadays, there is little doubt that our perception of risk is a product of both institutive and cultural biases. Accordingly, we can acknowledge our judgmental limitations regarding the risk of COVID -19.
But, what about governments?
Health and Economy
Governments emphasize that the pandemic poses a threat in two domains: health and economy.
How the message of the risk for the general audience is framed depends on the preferred focus: health or economy.
The concept of framing in risk perception research, explores the role of emotions that affect the way we think about information related to a risk and how we consequently behave.
It might be interesting to borrow this lens to try to understand how governments’ shape people’s perception of the risk of COVID-19 and how it can influence people’s related behaviour.
In a press conference on the pandemic, Donald Trump’s call for the ‘beautiful churches to be packed for Easter’ was an example of an emotionally charged frame chosen to shape American’s perceptions in a way that will downplay the risk posed by the virus and awaken their impulse of returning to normal state of affairs, thus re-launching full scale economy.
Unlike Trump, Angela Merkel’s message to the German people to take the crisis seriously, given that since the World War II there has been no such challenge to Germans’ is a framing, that implies a possible calamitous outcome, which serves the purpose of urging the citizens to comply with the restrictive measures in Germany.
This framing in Merkel’s addressing speaks to the aim of putting public health at the forefront. When governments manipulate the frame in their discourse, either at the level of the symbol or outcome of the current crisis, they aim to manipulate the citizens’ view on the risk of Covid-19 as well as their understanding of the government’s response to the crisis.
Given the complexity of the current crisis, decision-making regarding the COVID -19 pandemic is an ongoing process.
A series of decisions will follow, be it coherent or contradictory ones, throughout the management of this crisis.
This dynamic decision-making implies that the later decision is conditioned by the prior one and that decision makers make decisions based on the feedback of their action. The risk management field will certainly be busy exploring perception of risk of COVID-19 virus and the related decision making at individual, institutional and state levels.
Lejla Sunagic, PhD student
This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Experts – read more here