Dr. Steven Taylor
Current reactions to COVID-19: Rising anxiety and can’t pay the rent, so let’s party like it’s 1999
Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Opinion polls provide a snapshot of how people are reacting to the current pandemic. The most comprehensive was a recent Ipsos poll of 10,000 adults in 12 countries, with surveys conducted in February and March, 2020. The poll suggests that there has been increasing anxiety about personal finances and unemployment. The average person is more worried about the financial impact of COVID-19 than the health impact. The results are likely to vary with age, with older people being more worried about the health impact. The survey indicates that stockpiling has occurred in Europe, North America, and Asia. Stockpiling has become a problem, creating shortages driven by behavior, not by problems in the supply chain.
There is broad public support for closing of borders and for self-quarantining—“at least in theory”. In other words, people generally support the idea of social distancing, but that does not necessarily mean they will always put it into practice. Nevertheless, across countries, people were generally spending more time at home, except for shopping.
From February to March, Italians seriously reconsidered their views about whether the media was exaggerating the threat of COVID-19. In February, 80% of Italians thought the media was exaggerating. In March, only 29% held this view. Yet, across countries, most people remain optimistic that things will soon return to normal, despite projections suggesting the opposite.
Self-isolation will have a serious economic impact on many people. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center (N=8,914 U.S. adults, surveyed March 10-16, 2020), people were asked “What would most likely happen if you could not work for at least two weeks because of the coronavirus?” Almost a quarter (23%) said that they would not get paid and that it would be difficult for them to keep up with basic expenses. About a third (34%) regarded the coronavirus as a major threat to their personal financial situation.
Belief in conspiracy theories remains strong among many people. According to the Pew poll, 23% of Americans believe that the virus causing COVID-19 was intentionally created in a lab. I’m reminded of a quote by Katrin Weigmann (2018): “To think of all conspiracy theorists as cranks is not helpful—there are just too many” (p. 2).
It would be interesting to see survey data on adherence to social distancing. Here in Vancouver, and elsewhere, the beaches, parks, and hiking trails are crowded with young adults. In fact, some trails had to be closed because of the gross non-adherence to social distancing. People are partying on the beaches and in the parks. And there’s been a noticeable increase of people—almost all young adults—openly drinking liquor on the streets of Vancouver. The pubs and bars in Vancouver were crowded, mostly with young people, until the government shut down the party last week.
In summary, as the 2020 pandemic progresses, there’s been an increase in anxiety, particularly anxiety about the financial impact of COVID-19. And yet, a lot of people, particularly young adults, continue to congregate and party. Here's a take-home message for party-goers: The more you party, the longer this will last. You’re stressed about COVID-19 and so you go out and party. This increases your chances of contracting the virus. Even if you’re resilient, you’re likely to pass it on to older people, such as your grandmother, who won’t be so resilient. Moreover, the more you party, the longer this will last.
Here’s a scenario worth thinking about: The longer social distancing drags out, the poorer the compliance. As the weather improves with the arrival of Spring (here in the Northern Hemisphere), people will increasingly flock to parks and beaches. The government steps in, closing parks and public beaches, limiting outdoor activities to “essential” trips. So, people increasingly turn to shopping as one of their few legitimate reasons for venturing outside. We’ve already seen the lineups outside of grocery stores, supermarkets, and so-forth. Those lineups will only grow longer, as people use “shopping” as their only legitimate reason for getting out of the house. This worsens the problem of excess purchasing and stockpiling, leading to stores and government agencies imposing further rationing on the bored and stressed public. So, in this scenario, the government has to step in to deal with the problem.