Kenya: This Is Why High Risk Perception Index Is Needed

20 November 2020

Risk perception is that cloud of fruitful fear that triggers your mind to act in a manner that reduces your chances of facing a threat.

As Covid-19 makes a mighty comeback in the second wave; we all need to have a high-risk perception and, subsequently, a willingness to adopt preventive public health behaviour.

The risk perception index is important but, unfortunately, malleable, subjective and at the mercy of the masses that must make sense out of it.

It is complex amid an infectious disease like Covid-19, where the strength and success of interventions is measured at the weakest point. Perception is basically how people construct meaning out of a phenomenon. How we perceive something translates to how we act; hence "perception is reality".

Let's all be alive to the fact that the war against Covid-19 will be won or lost in our own hands. A lower risk perception lowers our positive behaviour trigger threshold and squarely puts us on a collision path with the virus -- which we can easily avoid by adhering to the public health directives.

Fear-evoking messages

We are lucky that the Covid-19 preventive measures have a high efficacy and are very easy to apply. You lose nothing by applying the measures but you greatly gain on the other hand, and it is not just an individual gain but you benefit a larger public, including your loved ones. Compare handwashing, sanitising, putting on a mask and what you have to do to prevent contracting HIV/Aids, for example.

Fear appeals, which involves use of fear-evoking messages and brute force, have been employed to raise the risk perception index. But this largely produces compliance behaviour devoid of internalisation and self-commitment to positive change.

Fear has been used to compel people to act properly. But as is evident with Covid-19, fear appeals, especially excess ones like death threats, are only productive in the short run and must be complemented by other strategies that point to the seriousness of a case.


It does not work in the long run since fear is an uncomfortable cognitive state that cannot be maintained for long. Audiences resort to selective listening or watching or resistance to messages.

Too much fear also results in stigmatisation of the victims, which is counterproductive.

But fear appeal is still a potent strategy that can be used during this second wave of Covid-19 to elicit positive behaviour change. It would greatly help generated from within. Everybody is now aware of the realities of the pandemic and know at least a friend, colleague of relative who has been infected.

As was expected, this index was at its height with the reports of the pandemic early in the year. It was so high that it triggered a good proportion of people to stay at home, reduce unnecessary visits by friends and family and wash hands regularly.

Then, most countries in Africa had reported few, if any, community spreads. Covid-19 is spreading like a wild fire within our communities. If we ever needed a high risk perception index, this is the time. @josephothieno

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