People who support continued COVID restrictions tend to overestimate the risks of COVID

A new study shows that in matters of public health, misinformation works both ways.

Throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, much has been made of the perils of public health misinformation about the disease, whether it’s about downplaying the severity or prevalence of COVID infections, casting doubt on the effectiveness of mitigation measures like masking and social distancing, or spreading erroneous information about unproven cures and therapies.

But what’s received almost no attention in mainstream media and political discussions are the problems associated with the opposite sort of misinformation about COVID: The potential to inflate or overestimate the risk of COVID either to one’s self or to specific groups of people. If anything, the very idea that the risks of COVID could be overstated in certain circumstances, or in relation to certain groups, has been treated as something of a taboo for the past year. That’s because of the singular imperative of flattening infection rates above all else. Entertaining any sort of idea or message that could detract from that goal, even if it were scientifically accurate, has carried enormous amounts of stigma.

But that calculation is changing now, and for a simple reason: We finally have widely available vaccines. The risks associated with the public not taking COVID seriously enough are much lower now because we’re much less dependent on broad, socially-dependent mitigation policies like distancing, masking, and closures of public places. If people want to protect themselves, they can just get vaccinated.

As a result, it’s now becoming a little more acceptable — and relevant — to look into the ramifications of exaggerating or overestimating COVID risks, and whether those kinds of beliefs are having an effect on public health policy preferences.

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