The media should be careful how they report Omicron cases

Cases of covid linked to the recently discovered Omicron variant of the virus have started to be reported in India and other parts of the world. Time will tell how transmissible, immune-evasive, and vaccine-resistant this strain is. Nonetheless, at some point, as was the case with previous waves and variations, reports of those who have been fully vaccinated and yet infected with Omicron will begin to appear. It is very important that the media report such cases with care, simply because such reports should in no way promote vaccine reluctance, as they have done in the past.

Steven Pinker makes this point in Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Rare, Why It Matters: “During the deployment of Covid vaccines known to have a 95% effectiveness rate, [journalists] wrote stories about vaccinated people who contracted the disease … about dozens of vaccinated people who contracted covid and recovered should also have been reported with the same zeal. And maybe it was missing.

It’s very similar to the way airplane crash reports happen. Every plane crash anywhere in the world is reported, but none of the many safe landings that occur over the course of a year are written down, just because a plane crash is news when a safe landing is not.

This leads to the rise of “availability bias” when people try to figure out the risk of anything. They tend to remember examples that come to their mind easily and immediately and overestimate the risk of these things happening. Take car crashes, which happen much more often than plane crashes, but hardly ever make the news. As Pinker writes: “Airplane crashes… get lavish coverage, but they only kill about 250 people a year globally, making planes about a thousand times safer per passenger mile than cars. “

This has repercussions in the real world. In the aftermath of September 11, many more people in the United States took up driving because they were afraid of flying. Spyros Makridakis, Robin Hograth and Anil Gaba write in Dance with Chance: “It was estimated that, in the year following September 11, some 1,600 deaths could have been avoided if people had not driven but had instead driven. continued to take the plane as usual. . “Availability bias has essentially led people to overestimate the risk of flying and underestimate the risk of driving. There are other examples of the same.

In April 2016, The Atlantic wrote of then-President Barack Obama, frequently reminding his staff “that terrorism kills far fewer in America than … car crashes … and falls into bathtubs “. , the data saved it.

As Hector Macdonald writes in Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality: “According to the National Safety Council, 464 people drowned in American baths in 2013; 1,810 drowned in natural water, 903 were accidentally suffocated or strangled in their beds, and over 30,000 fell to their deaths. That year, only three people in the United States were killed by terrorists.

Of course, as is the case with plane crashes, every terrorist attack is reported on top of the news, while deaths from drownings and falls are not mentioned just because they are so many. too many in relation to terrorist attacks. . This leads to an overestimation of the risk of dying in a terrorist attack and much less attention to the risk of dying in a freak accident.

So how does all of this matter in the current covid scheme? If the Omicron variant spreads and people who have taken the vaccine also become covid, it is important for the media to fully cover these stories, not just report groundbreaking cases and then forget about it. If the person is recovering, this should also be reported. This will ensure that the reluctance to vaccinate does not continue to spread.

It is also important to properly maintain and report data at an aggregate level. There must be an appropriate breakdown available of the number of people vaccinated who contracted the disease from the new variant and the proportion recovered. These data should be available at district, state and national levels. It needs to be widely reported, so that the big picture is clear. If the current vaccines are not very effective against the new variant, then people will need to be extra careful. Everything must be done to avoid fueling availability bias.

To conclude, there is an inherent bias in the way news is reported. Only what is new enough is reported and news consumers should keep this in mind while trying to understand reality as it exists.

The media must also do their part. As Pinker argues: “A… plane crash should be accompanied by the annual rate, which takes into account the denominator of the probability, not just the numerator. “

Likewise, while reporting on the spread of covid caused by the Omicron variant, it is important to report the cure rate among vaccinees who contract the disease. That would be the right way to put your risk in perspective.

Vivek Kaul is the author of ‘Bad Money’.

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