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Experts say people who feel invincible to COVID-19 tend to be unvaccinated and not follow safety protocols. Tom Werner/Getty Images
  • Experts say people who feel they are invincible to COVID-19 may be slowing down efforts to reach herd immunity.
  • They say that’s because this portion of the population is less likely to be vaccinated or follow safety measures such as mask wearing.
  • Experts say the feeling of invincibility is more common in countries that value independence and individuality, such as the United States and United Kingdom.

People who don’t believe that COVID-19 could seriously harm them are less likely to not only take precautions to protect themselves, they’re also less likely to take precautions that might protect others.

That’s according to a study published today in the journal PLOS One.

Researchers say that means this portion of the population is less willing to get vaccinated, and therefore more likely to hinder efforts to reach herd immunity — or at least high levels of immunization — that might help end the pandemic.

The study, which looked at responses from 200,000 people across 51 countries, found that the link between perceived levels of “invincibility” to the coronavirus and lack of precautions cut across international boundaries.

However, the link was stronger in countries whose cultures place a greater emphasis on qualities such as “individuality” and “autonomy,” researchers say — places like the United States and United Kingdom.

“Cultural collectivism,” on the other hand, “modulated these relationships such that the magnitude of the effects of perceived invincibility were less pronounced,” the study authors write.

“Having a culture of community and a belief in the common good is important in containing threats like COVID-19. These are some of the key differences between countries with high and low individual autonomy,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, DrPh, the founding dean of the University of California at Irvine Program in Public Health.

“New Zealand is an example that stands out. Throughout the pandemic, the country has continued to enhance COVID-19 testing and contact tracing while enforcing tight quarantines. While the New Zealand government’s COVID-19 response was rather strict, it received popular support from the public for its efforts,” she said.

Part of what makes this effective is a social phenomenon called “convening,” said Dr. Vino Palli, MPH, founder and CEO of MiDoctor Urgent Care in New York City.

“Convening refers to the art and discipline of nurturing collective action,” Palli told Healthline. “Unlike in countries with high individual autonomy, convening is effective in fighting COVID-19 since it advocates for shared solutions.”

While misinformation is everywhere, the easily accessible and rapid spread of false information on social media exacerbates these tensions between individual choice and the public good.

That, in turn, sows mistrust in vaccines and helps justify making choices against the best interests of public health, especially in countries that put a heavy emphasis on individual freedom.

But Boden-Albala said the public health community shares part of the blame.

“The field of public health — and certainly the country — have a lot of work to do to reconcile the legacies of oppression and racism that continue to sow mistrust and undermine public health efforts today,” she told Healthline.

Beyond that, “individuals who doubt the science, exaggerate potential harm, or appeal to personal freedoms to prove their point are getting away with it largely because we public health leaders let them,” she continued. “We need to be able to effectively respond to science denialism and have a productive dialogue.”

But some of these challenges are surmountable, experts say.

“Psychological models propose that the best tactics [to] inspire better collective action toward appropriate public health measures to control a pandemic like COVID-19 include community self-organization, government directives, and private ownership,” Palli said.

“It becomes easier to tackle any such challenge when the community is more organized to fight a pandemic backed up by governmental legislation,” he said.