Pandemic Pollwatch: Issue 1

Friday, March 20th, 2020
an analysis of global public opinion on covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic is a world-wide phenomenon that has galvanized global attention and made an impression on public thinking in virtually every country. This paper is the first in a series from GQR that will attempt to summarize and analyze what is known about global opinion on COVID-19.

This paper summarizes publicly available opinion data from 40 countries and territories (listed in the Appendix, with hyperlinks to all surveys) – all the ones we are aware of. That number obviously will grow (and we invite readers to alert us to data from anywhere not included here). As the Appendix notes, the reliability of data from these places varies due to differences in methodologies and underlying political conditions.

Future installments in this series will go into more depth about specific public opinion dynamics regarding the pandemic. This first paper seeks to summarize topline findings from the cross-national  analysis.

The major insights in this paper:

  • Awareness of coronavirus has quickly become near-universal, worldwide.
  • Fear of contracting the virus varies widely – not always in line with infection rates – and is rising.
  • Reported changes in people’s behaviors also vary across countries.
  • Significant and rising shares worldwide expect a negative economic impact.
  • Despite public fears, support for many public officials and institutions are mostly not falling much.

 

Major Insights

Awareness is near-universal, worldwide

A March 1 YouGov survey of 10 geographies(China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, US, UK) finds awareness levels of the virus of at least 93% in all geographies (“before taking this survey, had you heard of ‘coronavirus,’ ‘Wuhan Virus,’ or ‘COVID-19’?”). Even in some developing countries with fewer than a score of cases, proprietary research we have seen suggests awareness at about these same levels. This is an extraordinary level of worldwide awareness for a phenomenon that has only been in the news for a few months.

Fear of contracting the virus varies widely, not necessarily reflecting infection rates; but are rising

In the March 1 YouGov survey of 10 geographies, 81% of Indonesians say they are “very” or “somewhat scared that I will contract the Coronavirus (COVID-19),” including 47% who say they are “very scared.” By contrast, only 33% of Americans in that same survey say they are very or somewhat scared, including just 8% who say “very scared.” A more recent March 15 IPSOS survey similarly finds that only 22% of Americans believe the virus poses a “very high” or “high threat” to them personally; a March 13 Gallup poll finds 60% of Americans “very” or “somewhat worried” that “you or someone in your family will be exposed to coronavirus,” but this is a slightly looser measure.

Levels of concern about infection do not necessarily appear to correlate to per capita infection rates; for example, Indonesia has the highest level of concern in the YouGov study, but has had barely one case per million people (as of March 19). By contrast, in Hong Kong, much less of the public is “very” or “somewhat scared” of the virus (65%, compared to 81% in Indonesia), even though Hong Kong has experienced over 28 cases per million residents.

While fear of infection may not correlate tightly to national infection rates, fear of infection is not surprisingly rising in virtually all countries surveyed, as the number of infections rises. The same March 15 Ipsos survey across 12 countries found that fear of infection (“How likely do you think each of the following are to occur as a result of the Coronavirus or COVID-19: someone close to me will be infected by the virus?”) rose from their earlier February 29 survey in all 9 countries that had been surveyed both times. The increases ranged from a +10 point rise in Russia (from 21% to 31%), to a +31 point rise in the UK (up from 26% to 57%). The numerical average rise (not weighted for country population) was +21 points – in just two weeks.

Reported changes in behavior also vary

The March 1 YouGov survey of 10 geographies suggests that, unsurprisingly, respondents in places with higher levels of concern about the virus are more likely to have changed their personal behavior to protect their health. In Indonesia, with 81% very or somewhat scared about the virus, only 4% say they have adopted none of 8 behavioral changes; in the UK, by contrast, a 54% majority report taking none of these actions.

But citizens across locations do not prioritize their behavioral responses in the same ways. In the YouGov study, citizens in the 7 Asian geographies, which also have the highest levels of concern about the virus, are most likely to prioritize two steps: “Improve personal hygiene (e.g., washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer),” and “Wear a mask when in public places.” By contrast, in the US and UK, while the top behavioral change is also “improve personal hygiene,” the next two most frequently adopted behavioral changes are “Avoid crowded public places” and “Refrain from touching objects in public (e.g., using objects to press elevator buttons).”

Significant and rising shares expect a negative economic impact

The March 15 Ipsos survey across 12 countries also finds significant and rising levels of concern about the adverse economic impact of the pandemic. Across these countries, an average (unweighted for population) of 42% feel the coronavirus poses a “very high” or “high threat” to their “job or business.” In the 10 countries in which Ipsos has been tracking this question, the perceived level of threat to people’s jobs or businesses was up in all 10, with the largest jump in Italy, where this concern had more than doubled since the February 15 survey, now up to 63%.

Despite high levels of concern, public support for most public leaders and institutions remains relatively steady

There are no signs of any global public leaders or institutions getting sky-high ratings for their handling of the coronavirus crisis. Indeed, in most cases, such ratings have dropped in many places over time. Yet negative impacts on the overall support levels for many leaders appear to be relatively limited. It may be that there is some offsetting dynamic of a “rallying around the flag” – feelings of solidarity with national leaders during a time of crisis – or there may be other factors at play. It will be important to monitor the political impact of the crisis globally in the coming weeks and months.

The US provides one example of this mixed dynamic. President Donald Trump’s ratings for handling the crisis in most surveys are not good. The Morning Consult tracking on Trump’s net approval of his handling of the coronavirus has dropped from +35 on February 9 to +5 on March 16, up only slightly from its low point of -1 on March 9. An Ipsos tracker shows improvement from March 3 to March 17, with net approval of his handling of the coronavirus moving from -9 to +0. In the March 8 Quinnipiac survey, Trump’s job performance on the coronavirus was 43-49% net negative – better than his 41% job approval overall, but far below his 54% job approval on the economy.

Yet despite the low public confidence about his handling of the pandemic, Trump’s overall job ratings have remained steady: the March 13 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey shows him with 46% approval, virtually unchanged from the start of the year. Other major polls show the same, with very little change in Trump’s job approval or level of re-election support, at this point.

Even in some countries hit especially hard by coronavirus, trust and approval for national leaders has increased. In South Korea, President Moon Jae-In hit a record low (39%) in late 2019 in Gallup Korea’s weekly tracking, before the pandemic began. But his handling of the crisis has brought his approval rating back up to 49% by March 12. In Italy, trust in PM Giuseppe Conte has risen since the start of March. A poll from the Ixè Institute on March 17 shows that 45% of Italians trust Conte a lot or somewhat (the most of any political leader in the survey), up from 40% on March 3.

There is also a global pattern of greater trust in national health organizations over government leaders. In the Ipsos February 29 survey, in 9 of 10 countries surveyed, the share who felt their national health organization was doing a “very good” or “good” job to constrain the spread of the virus was greater than the corresponding number for their national government; for the 10th country, the figures were equal. Yet the “good job” figures for the national governments were not so low: 9 of the 10 were over 40%; and only 1 (Japan, at 24%) was under 40%.

While global publics often trust local leaders and institutions more than those on the national level, there are signs that is not the case with this pandemic. In the Ipsos poll, the share across 10 countries who feel “local or regional health authorities” are doing a “very good” or “good job” to constrain the spread of the virus is lower than for national health authorities in 9 of the 10 cases (and is tied in the 10th).

Because the coronavirus pandemic has become the central political issue in most countries, it has also become a partisan issue. Just as opinion split along partisan lines in the US regarding the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15, opinion in the US also breaks along highly partisan lines now, with Republicans much more supportive of Trump’s job in handling the virus, and much less willing to believe the media about the severity of the pandemic.


GQR will continue to provide updates on global public opinion trends regarding the coronavirus pandemic. We welcome all feedback, questions, and information about opinion research we have not covered, as well as insights about this fast-moving and highly consequential global crisis.

 

Appendix

This analysis is based on available global public opinion research on the COVID-19 pandemic. We welcome input from others – including insights about opinion trends and dynamics, and about additional public opinion research that is not included here.

Countries and territories with published public opinion data on COVID-19 at this point include:

  • Australia
  • Bulgaria
  • Canada
  • China
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Hong Kong
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Iran
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malaysia
  • Malta
  • Mexico
  • The Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Philippines
  • Romania
  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Singapore
  • Slovenia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Thailand
  • Taiwan
  • Turkey
  • United Arab Emirates
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Vietnam

The reliability of the public opinion data from these geographies varies – and affects our analysis – for several reasons. First, some of these countries, such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, are “not free” (according to rankings by Freedom House) and respondents in these countries may not feel free to give their actual opinions in a survey.

Second, the methodologies used in these surveys vary, and few are “gold standard” quality. The pandemic has driven researchers in most geographies to rely on online surveys, which generally do not have probability-based samples, and can suffer from opt-in bias. Sample sizes and quality control procedures also vary across the available surveys.

The full list of surveys summarized in this paper is:

Multi-Country

Bulgaria

Iran

Ireland

Italy

Japan

Latvia

Lithuania

Luxembourg

Malta

Netherlands

Poland

Romania

Slovenia

South Korea

Turkey

United Kingdom

USA