Citizens’ Responses to Covid-19: A Worldwide Comparison

Tracking and analysing populations’ reactions to this unprecedented global pandemic is essential. But in order to understand their underlying foundations, it is crucial to be able to compare these reactions between multiple countries. This comparative study is precisely what the CEVIPOF has decided to undertake with “Attitudes Towards Covid 19”, a research project based on surveys conducted in more than 18 countries - from Canada to South Africa to France and New Zealand. On an unprecedented scale, this survey makes it possible to understand the reactions and behaviour of citizens towards political and institutional decisions in matters of health, the economy, or even civil liberties. So much data that has already proved invaluable in guiding public figures in their arguments and recommendations. Interview with Martial Foucault, Director of the CEVIPOF and co-coordinator of the study with Sylvain Brouard, research director.

In the tradition of opinion polls conducted by CEVIPOF, you launched this project to survey citizens’ reactions  to COVID-19. What are the project’s origins?

The project was born from reflections that we had in early March with French and foreign colleagues during the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic in Europe, and in particular in Italy. We quickly thought about what kind of survey system we could set up to understand what, at the time, was not yet a global health crisis, but was quickly becoming an unprecedented crisis with all production systems being shut down. Our ambition was to be able to capture attitudes, perceptions and especially the reception of the threat of the virus as such. We also wanted to understand how citizens assess governments’ management of the crisis and the role of scientists. The urgency was to select several countries exposed to the virus to varying degrees but that are also different in their political organisation (centralised country vs. federal, majority regime vs. coalition regime, etc.).

What are the concrete objectives of the project?

The survey investigation, replicated from one country to another, has four main objectives:

  • To explain the reasons why citizens are more or less likely to apply/respect government recommendations under certain circumstances.
  • To delve into the perceived effects of the virus in the daily lives of citizens and how they react to the speeches of public authorities and other opinion leaders.
  • To study the conditions under which the post-COVID-19 period can both increase fragmentation within societies and affect social cohesion. This “forward-looking” aspect is made possible by the duration of our survey, which will last until the fall of 2020. The survey will provide information on the expectations of citizens in terms of the transformation of societies and the economic disorders they will face after the epidemic.
  • To study citizens’ reactions to the crisis in terms of their economic well-being, their preferences in regards to the role of government, social acceptability of restrictive measures and their new relationship to work...

This study, conducted nationally on a weekly basis, is already in its 5th installment. What have been its major findings so far?

In France, we have adopted a unique weekly monitoring system based on a few questions that may vary over time. For example, we have observed the French population’s very high sensitivity and judgment towards the executive branch’s actions after each speech and the announcement of new confinement measures. Unlike other countries, the level of obedience has been gradual, peaking after 3 weeks at more than 90% compliance with government measures. Another interesting result has been on the emotional level. Contrary to popular belief, the French express a higher level of anger than anxiety when it comes to the management of the crisis. Lastly, there are important differences between men and women on the perception of the crisis. Paradoxically, while the coronavirus mortality risk is higher for men, women suffer from the most acute forms of social isolation and are more respectful of health measures.

Do you expect to see the emergence of new, long-term implications?

It is too early to speak with any certainty about structural changes in French society. The lockdown creates a “bell jar” effect which makes it impossible to envisage many of the intermediate and long term consequences. Even if the government interventions and safety nets can produce real damping effects in a world at a complete standstill, these will eventually be impossible to sustain. One option would be to rethink the role of the welfare state as not only restorative in times of crisis, but also protective by anticipating such shocks. It is striking also to observe that three years ago, 76% of people wanted a decrease in the budget deficit, compared to just 39% today.

This project has a significant international dimension, yet the situation varies greatly from one country to the next. How do you ensure that the results can be compared?

The international and comparative dimension of the project contributes to a better understanding of the common traits between countries experiencing different levels of exposure to COVID-19. It is with this in mind that we wanted to integrate alongside 8 European countries, 7 African countries, but also Brazil, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The logic of comparison consists in working with each foreign colleague on the adaptation of the same survey for different national contexts.

You also had the idea of allowing public authorities to use the findings in order to improve their responses to the crisis; what reactions were you expecting from this?

Yes, we have decided to allow immediate access to our raw data for the French case, wave after wave, to establish this project as a public research mission. It requires a lot of human and financial effort to generalise this approach to all the countries surveyed. We were able to make the first French and comparative analyses available via the dedicated website of the project - Attitudes Toward Covid-19. The Covid-19 Scientific Council of the French government was able to draw upon elements of our analyses in the production of their arguments and recommendations, for example on the issue of accepting the use of smartphones to complete compulsory forms for individual outings, but also on the effects of confinement on individuals’ relationship to salaried employment.

The project “Citizens’ Attitudes Towards COVID-19 - A Comparative Study”, coordinated by Sylvain Brouard (CEVIPOF) and Martial Foucault (CEVIPOF) is supported by the French National Research Agency (l’Agence Nationale de la Recherche). It is being conducted in partnership with over 12 French and overseas institutions.

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