Fear of COVID-19

How Frightened Are People About Covid-19?

Because it is difficult to know how frightened people are in an absolute sense, the figure above displays data that allow comparisons with other events. The Adverse Events Index is a meta-analytic summary of reports of fear following wars, missile strikes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, tsunamis, forest fires, volcanos, and nuclear power plant failures (Dillard & Li, 2019). Because these were all one-time events that all took place in the past, the value of the Index doesn’t change over time (i.e., it is a flat line). Similarly, the values for Zika, Ebola, and H1N1 are drawn from single surveys that took place in 2016, 2014, and 2009 respectively. The values for Covid-19 come from national surveys that were conducted weekly beginning in mid-March. Thus, it is possible to see how levels of fear of Covid-19 have changed over time.

Why Should We Be Concerned About Fear of Covid-19?

Although fear can motivate self-protection in different ways, it can also create problems especially when it is not clear how to deal with a threat to well-being. Fear of infectious disease has the potential to cause problems at three levels (Van Bortel et al., 2016).

At the level of individuals, fear can interfere with the ability to perform one’s job and to successfully enact social relationships (Tamir, 2016), as well as decrease job satisfaction and increase stress (Hartley, Davila, Marquart, & Mullings, 2013). Fear and related disorders, such as posttraumatic stress syndrome, have also been associated with diminished cardiovascular fitness (Suls & Bunde, 2005), decreased immune system functioning (Segerstrom, Solomon, Kemeny, & Fahey, 1998), and degraded psychological health (Silver et al., 2013).

At the community level, fear can accelerate the spread of disease (Schulz et al., 2016), cause delays in care seeking (Yamanis, Nolan, & Shepler, 2016), disrupt health care delivery systems (Barrett & Brown, 2008), and diminish trust in health services (Van Bortel et al., 2016). In the case of Covid-19, some parents are delaying vaccination of their children against other diseases such as measles and mumps.

Fear can also produce unwanted outcomes at the state and national levels, especially with respect to economics. For instance, areas impacted by infectious diseases may experience loss of investment and decreased tourism/travel (Lempel et al., 2009). The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Covid-19 will cost the U.S economy $7.9 trillion over the next decade (Cox, 2020).


Cox, J. (2020, June 1). The coronavirus will cost the economy nearly $8 trillion, say Congressional Budget Office. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/01/the-coronavirus-will-cost-the-economy-nearly-8-trillion-congressional-budget-office-says.html

SEE Dillard & Yang (2019) for the other references

What is Fear?

The emotion fear can be thought of as similar to a computer program. It accepts input in the form of perceptions of the environment, then analyzes that input to assess whether we are at risk of some harm and what we should do about it. Fear intensity increases to the extent that the harm is seen as severe, that it is approaching quickly, and that we are likely to be susceptible.

Once fear is evoked it energizes and guides self-protective actions. But what counts as self-protective varies by circumstances and the intensity of the fear. For instance, fear can motivate people  to pay closer attention to the news. This is a means of monitoring the threat to well-being and might produce information about actions that could taken to reduce risk. If there is some clear path to mitigating the risk – such as a vaccine -- fear can provide the motivation for the protective behavior. But, sometimes there is no effective means of reducing the threat. In this situation, people often seek to manage their fear nonetheless.

How Should We Index Fear?

Because people are aware of being afraid, a simple and valid means of measuring fear is to ask them how they are feeling. It is indexed in the English language by a family of terms that range from worried to terrified. Synonyms that lie near the center of the intensity continuum include scared, afraid, and frightened (Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988). For example, using a response scale where 0 = None of this feeling and 4 = A great deal of this feeling, how are frightened are you about Covid-19? The average, or mean value across persons provides an estimate of how the public at large is feeling (assuming that the sample of respondents is representative).

Fear of Covid-19

Interpreting the mean alone can be misleading because it represents only one aspect of the distribution of scores. Imagine that we survey 100 people and find that 20 of them give an answer of 0 = None of this feeling, 20 give an answer of 2, 20 of 2, 20 of 3, and 20 of 4 = A lot of this feeling. Some people are very frightened, others not at all, and most are in the middle. Averaging these scores gives a mean of 2. Now imagine another scenario in which we survey 100 people and equal numbers of them say that their fear is represented by the value of 1, 2, or 3. The mean is 2 again, but there is no one who is very frightened and no one who is not at all scared. Instead, people are reporting a pretty uniform reaction to the perceived threat.

The effect size index d is a means of combining information about the mean and the variation around it. In this application, the formula is simple: M/SD (Ellis, 2010). To the extent that the threatening event produces a more uniform effect on respondents, the SD is smaller and the corresponding d value is larger. The reverse is also true: Less uniformity yields a larger SD and a smaller d. We have made statistical adjustments to d to correct for the effects of measurement error. The resulting coefficient is known as Δ (i.e., delta). All of the coefficients displayed in the figure are Δ values.