How politics shapes virus risk perceptions

John M. Barrios and Yael Hochberg find that the search share for the identified terms are lower in US counties with a higher vote share for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election

Sneha Alexander
Updated5 May 2020, 09:32 PM IST
Political beliefs and behaviour of political leaders can influence how people react to the covid emergency.
Political beliefs and behaviour of political leaders can influence how people react to the covid emergency.(Photo: AP)

Political leanings may colour one’s risk perception of the covid-19 pandemic, suggests a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by John M. Barrios and Yael Hochberg. The researchers use Google search-share of covid-related terms as a proxy for people’s risk perception of the pandemic in the US. Their presumption is that the perceived risk is higher in locations that saw higher searches for covid-related terms such as coronavirus, Wuhan virus and unemployment, which denotes the economic risk.

The authors find that the search share for the identified terms are lower in US counties with a higher vote share for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. When the number of confirmed coronavirus cases doubled in the US, the overall search share for these terms typically increased by 40%. However, in areas that supported Trump, the increase was just 7.8%.

People’s risk perception also determined how seriously they adopted physical distancing. Based on mobile data records, the authors show that areas with greater support for Trump took physical distancing less seriously. As covid-19 cases doubled, visits to non-essential locations such as restaurants, clothing stores and theatres fell by 4.75% nationally as opposed to just 0.5% in areas that supported Trump.

The risk perception in counties favouring Trump changed when Republican politicians such as Ted Cruz were quarantined for being exposed to an infected individual and conservative news channels such as Fox News ramped up their coverage on covid-19. Thereafter, areas favouring Trump saw a considerable decline in trips to non-essential locations.

People’s assessment of risks associated with events are influenced by the behaviour of political leaders they support and the news they consume, suggest the authors. During pandemics, this has serious implications for not just the individual but also the whole society.

Also read: Risk Perception Through the Lens of Politics in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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First Published:5 May 2020, 09:32 PM IST
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