Brent Batten: Public perception doesn’t square with virus reality, consultant’s survey shows

There are enough numbers swirling around the COVID-19 pandemic to make an accountant’s head swim.

Daily the headlines report record numbers of deaths and/or new cases.

Hospital availability fluctuates between acceptable and alarming.

In Congress they talk not in terms of billions of dollars but trillions in relief packages.

One set of numbers buried in the mountain of them indicates that perhaps we’ve been overwhelmed with all the figures and statistics.

It comes from Kekst CNC, an international business consulting firm with a focus on communication strategies.

With offices in New York, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the company has been watching the pandemic’s spread around the world and what it means to businesses.

Part of the effort includes polling people in different countries on their perceptions about the coronavirus.

The most recent results, in what Kekst calls COVID-19 Opinion Tracker Edition 4, shows that as bad as the pandemic is, people believe it to be much worse.

In interviews of 1,000 people in each country surveyed respondents were asked to place a percentage on the number of people in their country they believe to have been infected with and killed by the virus.

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The interviews were done between July 10 and July 15 and the survey has a margin of error of about 3%, Kekst reports.

Kekst compiled the numbers and reported the mean, or average, figure in each category.

In the U.S. the average number people gave when asked to estimate the number of Americans sickened by COVID-19 was 20%. In a country of 330 million people, that would amount to 66 million cases.

In truth, the number of cases in the U.S. stands today at about 4.5 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On July 10 the number was lower. The public perception of the disease is about 20 times higher than its actual prevalence.

When it comes to deaths, the public perception is even further off.

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The average figure Americans gave when asked to estimate how many of their fellow citizens had died of COVID-19 was 9%.

That would translate to about 30 million deaths.

The actual CDC figure is about 150,000 deaths. It’s a large number, far higher than the number of people who would die even in a severe flu season, but it is a fraction of the number people gave when asked.

Instead of 9%, of the U.S. population, COVID-19 deaths represent less than .05% of the population. Put another way, the perception was about  200 times higher than reality.

Perceptions in Europe were similarly exaggerated, according to the Kekst surveys. In Great Britain, the estimate of the number of cases was four times higher than reality and the estimated number of deaths was 100 times higher.

In Denmark, estimated cases were off by a factor of 46 and deaths by a factor of 100.

“People think coronavirus is more widespread, and more deadly, than official figures show. Perception is reality when it comes to coronavirus, and such views will be impacting consumer behavior and wider attitudes,” the Kekst report concludes.

None of that suggests the disease isn’t a threat or that precautions ought not be taken.

But let’s not let ourselves be overwhelmed by what seems like an endless wave of numbers.

(Connect with Brent Batten at [email protected] or via Facebook.)

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