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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Surveying the Social and Cultural Impacts of COVID-19

Months into the novel coronavirus pandemic, researchers around the world are working to understand its effects on people’s attitudes and behaviors. How do people feel about isolation and lockdowns? How do different information sources affect public knowledge of COVID-19 and social distancing practices? What are people willing to sacrifice for the economy? Northwestern University assistant professor of sociology Dr. Beth Redbird and Kyiv School of Economics assistant professor Dr. Tymofiy Brik joined the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs this week for a webinar addressing these questions and more, drawing on large-scale surveys of citizens in the United States and the Ukraine. Here are five takeaways:

Support for restricting liberties has waned, yet most people aren’t ready to return to normal.  Americans’ taste for restrictive policies designed to curb the spread of COVID-19, such as keeping businesses closed, cancelling events and restricting travel, has waned in recent months, according to the COVID-19 Social Change Survey, a daily, nationally representative survey of Americans Redbird and an interdisciplinary team of social scientists developed with support from the National Science Foundation. Yet, more than three quarters of Americans remain somewhat or very uncomfortable interacting with strangers—shaking hands, sharing an elevator with or passing by a stranger—and more than half remain uncomfortable interacting with friends. A majority of Americans also speculate it will be more than a couple of months—and possibly never—before they no longer worry about being in a crowd, riding on a bus or riding on a plane, while nearly a third report the same about getting a haircut.

A similar survey of Ukrainian citizens shows the percentage of people in urban Ukraine who report they fear for themselves significantly lower than the percentage who report they fear for others. Brik hypothesized this is due to “clever government messages” emphasizing the importance of social responsibility and caring for others, but emphasized the need for additional research on how information sources and messaging contribute to citizens’ fears and perceptions.

Social solidarity in the U.S. has declined, but there are bright spots. Social solidarity—a measure of the extent to which people agree with statements such as “we are all citizens of the world” and “Americans tend to come together in times of crisis” dropped precipitously between mid-March and the end of April, according to the COVID-19 Social Change Survey. However, disaggregated survey results show a significant rise over the past three weeks in a sense of solidarity with neighbors and the world amid worldwide protests against racial discrimination and police brutality. Recent survey results also show the percentage of people blaming others for the pandemic on the decline in the United States. “In April, we saw a big increase in mistrust of Asians and blaming others, but it seems like it may have been temporary,” Redbird said.

Attitudes and perceptions about COVID-19 are shaped by information sources: In the Ukraine, survey results show a correlation between misinformation about the role of others—China in particular—in the COVID-19 contagion and where people get their news. Ukrainians who rely predominantly on mainstream media for information about COVID-19 have, on average, been less likely to report they agree with false statements such as “you can get it [COVID-19] from eating bananas from China” than those who rely on online media, online social networks or informal social ties for information. “Ukrainians rely strongly on mainstream media, but the COVID-19 crisis coincided with a political crisis in the Ukraine, and so the information space has been polluted,” Brik said. “Informal institutions—social ties and religious communities—are shaping attitudes and behaviors,” he continued, pointing to the relationship between the percentage of Ukrainian survey respondents agreeing with the statement “Praying cures the coronavirus” and the religious community to which they belong.

Ultimately, Redbird and Brik both reported feeling a “moral and professional obligation” to study COVID-19. “I think we need to preserve as much data as possible and perform a social autopsy of the pandemic for years to come,” Redbird said. “We need to understand not just what happened during this time, but what it means—how our cognitive structures functioned during the pandemic and what that meant in terms of our behavior.” Brik concurred and underscored the importance of understanding how different societies react to COVID-19. “We need more comparative data,” he said.