The Covid-19 pandemic has shown we are risk-illiterate


With a public inquiry examining the UK Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic due to take place in Spring 2022, there is one topic of conversation which has received far less attention than it ought: risk literacy. 

Risk literacy (or rather, illiteracy) has played a far bigger role in this pandemic than many people realise. Whether it be through underestimation or overestimation of risk, many key moments since December 2019 have been affected by people’s risk illiteracy.

Arguably, risk illiteracy throughout this pandemic has been most apparent when it comes to underestimating particular threats, which have resulted in incorrect or late decisions and dire consequences. For example, in early 2020, many people (not just politicians) dismissed Covid-19 as a nasty bout of the flu. 

It was only after several weeks of rising infections and death tolls that some people realised they were wrong. But why were these people wrong? 

Naturally, everyone will have their own opinion, yet one possible answer is they were risk-illiterate; people did not understand the risk posed by this new virus. Part of this might come from the fact their perceptions of Covid-19 related health risks were misinformed by previous pandemic threats.

“risk illiteracy meant some people ignored this chance element, which misguided their judgements and resulted in incorrect decisions, with fatal consequences.”

Indeed, the psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer once commented that the World Health Organisation believed two billion people would be infected by Swine Flu, which did not happen. As a result of this incorrect prediction, many people may have thought COVID-19 would be a repeat of Swine Flu. 

In doing so, they fell prey to what psychologists call the hot-hand fallacy, which is a belief that a sequence of patterns will remain the same, irrespective of chance. In this case, it meant many people thought Covid-19 was being massively overstated, because previous threats never materialised. 

However, those who underestimated this risk ignored one key element: chance. They ignored the fact that new viruses and their mutations are all subject to chance, which can suddenly turn a rather benign threat into an impending disaster. 

Indeed, it was overlooking this simple thing which resulted in risk-illiterate decisions, whether it be politicians not taking the threat posed by Covid-19 seriously, or regular people not wearing masks. Therefore, risk illiteracy meant some people ignored this chance element, which misguided their judgements and resulted in incorrect decisions, with fatal consequences.

Hence, risk underestimation was a huge problem at the start of this pandemic. Nevertheless, risk overestimation could also have consequences, which may end up being equally as damaging. For instance, if we consider the reports of blood clots amongst recipients of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, overestimations of risk are clear. 

Back in March, several governments paused the AstraZeneca vaccine’s rollout, after 30 people experienced blood clots (from 5 million doses in the EEA). Arguably, their actions might be considered as risk-illiterate. But why? 

Whilst 30 people suffering from a blood clot is not insignificant and did inform later policies, these decisions at that point in time seemingly did not consider other risks, such as the prevalence of blood clots amongst people who suffered from Covid-19, or vaccine hesitancy.

“there is one conclusion which should be common: we need to improve our risk literacy. ”

Indeed, there may well be a credible argument that several governments paused the vaccine’s rollout, because being seen to do something was more politically-expedient than doing nothing; irrespective of the fact these blood clot risks were tiny and mass vaccination mitigates other risks (e.g., increased infection rates). 

Therefore, one might argue these decisions to pause the vaccine’s use came from risk-illiterate leaders, whose wish to be seen to be doing something meant they acted on a relatively small risk, and in doing so, exposed themselves to the larger risk of vaccine hesitancy and increasing infection rates.

Everyone can learn something from this pandemic, from politicians of all political persuasions, to wider society. With the UK’s public inquiry due to begin next year, and no doubt similar inquiries in other countries due to be announced, there is one conclusion which should be common: we need to improve our risk literacy. 

We need to listen to people like Gigerenzer, and ensure we have a statistically-literate society (which is the precursor to a risk-literate society). Indeed, this could take the form of our schools and universities teaching the foundations of risk to everyone (not just those in some psychology and business schools). 

We also need to ensure we do not take situations for granted, nor rely on benign situations repeating themselves. If this can be done, we can improve our risk literacy and decision-making. Hopefully, this should ensure the immense suffering endured throughout this pandemic is the last of its kind. 

Photo: Alan Foster via Flickr

One thought on “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown we are risk-illiterate

  • Nice neologism. Shame it doesn’t make sense.


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