U.K., Spain Most Concerned About the Coronavirus, Index Shows

Katelyn Newman

Residents in the United Kingdom and Spain are the most worried when it comes to COVID-19, while those in South Korea are the least, a new index shows.

The researchers surveyed nearly 7,000 people from 10 countries -- United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Mexico, Japan and South Korea -- between mid-March and mid-April to create a tool that assesses people's risk perceptions of the coronavirus pandemic around the world.

"These countries were chosen for their cultural and geographic diversity and to represent countries at different stages of the pandemic, with different government policies," authors of the study said.

The resulting index included factors such as "participants' perceived seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, perceived likelihood of contracting the virus themselves over the next six months, perceived likelihood of their family and friends catching the virus, and their present level of worry about the virus," according to the study, published on Tuesday in the Journal of Risk Research.

It also assessed the determinants that contribute to perceived risk, including variables ranging from people's knowledge and understanding of the risks, trust in their governments and in science to the social and cultural norms in place and their personal experiences with the virus.

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"Without pharmaceutical treatment, we are relying on people changing their behaviour to put the brakes on this pandemic," Dr Sander van der Linden, study lead and director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, said in a statement. "The willingness to adopt protective behaviours such as frequent hand-washing or physical distancing is likely to be influenced, in part, by how risky people perceive the virus to be."

The results showed that risk perception across the 10 countries were all fairly high, varying between 4.78 and 5.45 on a 7-point scale. The U.K., at 5.45 points, had the highest perceived risk, followed closely by Spain, at 5.19 points. The U.K. has now surpassed Italy as the European country with the most reported deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Further, results showed that people who have personally experienced the virus, those who have received information on the virus from family and friends and individuals who said they believe the benefit to society in practicing social distancing and other measures to be above their temporary personal costs perceived more risk compared to those who have not. People with more individualistic views perceived the virus to be less of a threat.

"The perception that the government is restricting people's freedom might cause psychological pushback among some people with strong individualistic worldviews," Dr. Sarah Dryhurst, co-author of the study, said in a statement. "We see this expressed in anti-lockdown protests in the U.S. and Germany, for example."

Notably, men were less worried than women, despite previous research showing that men are more likely to have adverse reactions if they contract COVID-19 than their female counterparts. Higher trust in science, medical practitioners and personal knowledge for the most part correlated with higher perceived risk, while increased trust in the government, especially among more conservative mindsets in the U.K. and U.S., corresponded with a lower perceived risk.

"Governments are asking people to stay inside and give up their livelihoods in order to protect their societies. It's important we understand how people react to the information and instructions they receive about the virus," Dr. Alexandra Freeman, director of the Winton Centre, said in a statement. Risk perception also correlated positively and significantly with established preventative health behaviors, such as washing hands, wearing a face mask and physical distancing the study showed.

Among its limitations, researchers noted that the index did not rely on probability samples and therefore does not represent each country's population as a whole. Still, the study -- self-proclaimed as the "first comparative evidence of how people perceive the risk of COVID-19 around the world" -- identifies the social, cultural and experiential factors that come into play with perceived risk surrounding an infectious outbreak like coronavirus, which officials may use to better communicate the health risk to their constituents.

"Appealing to altruistic and prosocial motives can be an important aspect of solving social dilemmas during pandemics," the study said. "Relatedly, those who receive information about the virus from friends and family, those who think that their government's action is not being effective, and those who say that they believe it's important for governments to intervene and take collective action all perceive a higher risk."

"(A)lthough the current evidence is only observational and could benefit from experimental testing, what does seem clear is that a better understanding of not only the knowledge that people have, but also the experiential, social, and cultural factors that drive COVID-19 risk perceptions around the world (and their role in motivating preventative health behaviors) could help policy-makers design evidenced-based risk communication strategies, and that insights from different countries around the world could be of relevance and use in designing those."

Katelyn Newman is a staff writer for Healthiest Communities at U.S. News & World Report, covering addiction, the opioid crisis and social determinants of health. She came to U.S. News in 2017 from CNN, where she was a news associate; she has also worked as an intern at CNN Investigations, The Daily Record and The Gazette in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She has been awarded fellowships by the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources and the National Press Foundation, and has participated in workshops held by the Poynter Institute and IJNR. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park. Follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, or email her at knewman@usnews.com.