COVID-19 Shows Our Failure to Understand Risk

6 min readJul 13, 2020
Photo via Adam Nieścioruk, Unsplash

Risk appears to be something we can objectively find, but humans are terrible at understanding and responding to risk. When tied to poor leadership and refusals to accept shared sacrifice, our poor understanding of risk intensifies the scope of the pandemic in the United States.

Young Adults & COVID-19

As COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket in the United States, we have settled into a discursive frame that blames younger people for not taking the virus seriously and worsening the pandemic. Certainly, we see a surge in cases among young people. Early messaging that suggested that children and young adults do not face much risk from the virus contributes to blatant disregard for basic practices like social distancing and wearing a mask.

That is a tidy narrative: Young people do not seem to understand or care about the risk of the virus — too tidy of a narrative. I have been thinking a lot about risk lately. My Mom was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer recently and my Dad has been battling prostate cancer for almost a decade. I live in Nebraska and they live in Colorado. I fixate on the risk of visiting them. They badly need support and COVID-19 has made it almost impossible to help. We are losing time to see each other; they are missing out on time with their children and grandchildren. Risk occupies my mind a lot.

The Social Construction of Risk

Risk seems like the kind of thing we should be able to know objectively. Given enough data and experience, we can make really good predictions about how dangerous various activities are. Conversely, humans are really bad at interpreting risk. We engage in all manner of risky activities (our gun culture, over-consumption of alcohol, refusal to regulate carcinogens) while fixating on a host of irrational fears (flying, snakes, clowns). In my Politics of Everyday Life class, I teach students about the social construction of danger and risk. Students often object; “Danger is objective; we know if something is dangerous,” they say. Sure, we can quantify the risk of a variety of activities. However, in the practice of our everyday lives, we respond to, and worry about, danger based culturally constructed understanding of risks, not an objective awareness of risk.

“Danger is not an objective condition. It [sic] is not a thing that exists independent of those to whom it may become a threat.” David Campbell

To make this point, I ask students to read an excerpt from David Campbell’s excellent book Writing Security. Campbell (1992)argues, “Danger is not an objective condition. It [sic] is not a thing that exists independent of those to whom it may become a threat” (1). Rather than danger lurking in the natural world, it is something that we understand socially, based on our own cultural norms and practices. Campbell continues, “In these terms, danger is an effect of interpretation. Danger bears no essential, necessary, or unproblematic relation to the action or event from which it is said to derive” (2). Campbell is clear to note that such a frame, “does not deny that there are ‘real’ dangers in the world”; however, we cannot understand those dangers without our culturally derived frame (2). The ideas of risk and danger are always tied to specific culturally-bound times and places.

“In these terms, danger is an effect of interpretation. Danger bears no essential, necessary, or unproblematic relation to the action or event from which it is said to derive.” David Campbell

Risk & COVID-19

What does this have to do with COVID-19? Everything. Here are a few ways this way of understanding risk impacts the current pandemic:

  1. In initially framing the virus as little more than the flu, our perceptions of risk lowered.
  2. In initially framing the virus as only minimally impacting children and young adults, our perceptions of risk lowered.
  3. In initially framing fatal outcomes as impacting mostly the elderly or people with comorbidities, our perception of risk was lowered.
  4. In continually framing our healthcare system as the best in the world, our perception of the risk was lowered.

When these frames are let loose in a cultural context where people already take risky behavior regularly, hello United States, it leads to a situation where many people hear about the danger but internalize a message that they are not actually at risk.

“None of us are sick!”

Yesterday, while walking outside around her apartment complex, my Mom began to approach a group of young people who were not wearing masks. My Mom, a person undergoing chemotherapy for stage IV lung cancer, put on her mask before she passed them. As she walked by, one of them yelled, “None of us are sick!” These individuals do not understand the risks of this virus. They are not responding to the possibility of pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic spread. They do not see how their behavior can put those around them in danger. In short, they are interpreting risk in a way that may intensify the pandemic. We are terrible at understanding and responding to risk.

COVID-19 On Campus

Like many others around the country, my university is in fevered preparations to return to campus in a few short weeks. Some faculty are terrified. Should they be? I think so, but maybe I am just expressing my subjective perception of the risk. We do not know what the actual risk is to do our jobs this fall. Genuinely, we do not have the data needed to understand how dangerous it is to be in the classroom this fall. That leaves us with wildly varying interpretations of risk, including administrators following health department guidelines to minimize risk, faculty who see these precautions and overwrought and unneeded, and faculty who do not feel safe being in a classroom until there is a vaccine.

What is the risk of teaching face-to-face this fall? We don’t know. That uncertainty worsens our inability to understand risk. We leap to conclusions, assume bad faith, and fear doing our jobs. Even when we have some data, like cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, that still does not translate to actual risk. A new tool out of Georgia Tech can tell me the risk in my area, based on crowd size, that someone with COVID-19 is present. What does that mean? In Omaha, NE where I live:

  • In a group of 10 people, there is an 18% chance someone with COVID-19 is present.
  • In a group of 25 people, there is a 39% chance someone with COVID-19 is present.
  • In a group of 50 people, there is a 63% chance someone with COVID-19 is present.
  • In a group of 100 people, there is an 86% chance someone with COVID-19 is present.

My brain immediately started to think about class sizes and how to calculate the odds in various classes that a student (or faculty member) with COVID-19 would be present. I freaked out. There is just one problem, telling me the chance that someone with COVID-19 is present does not say anything about the risk I have of being infected — because, again, we just don’t understand the risks yet. Fear and misunderstood risk are thriving in the pandemic and will soon spread across campuses nationwide.


Really, I wish I had some great solutions for those of you that made it this far. I don’t. Institutions that have decided to be totally online this fall have decided the risk is too great. Other institutions are moving forward with face-to-face classes. For the latter group, I think two things need to happen:

  1. We need to talk with students about the virus and the risks associated with it. We have a responsibility to help counter the early framing that is informing some of their views that they are not at risk.
  2. Universities need to be clear with faculty and students about the risks of getting back in the classroom. That includes admitting what you do not know. Compliance with health department recommendations are great, but we need as much information as possible on if compliance significantly reduces risk. Without this information, our wildly diverging perceptions of the virus’s risk will continue apace and fear will haunt our campuses in the months to come.




Associate Professor in Communication Studies. Rhetorical Critic.