Humans, by nature, are creatures of habit. It often takes near-apocalyptic scenarios to get people to make even modest changes to their routines and behaviors.
Enter Covid-19. Perhaps no event in modern history has re-routed the course of human behavior more than the Coronavirus pandemic.
Eliot Roth, president of CI-SONAR, a market research consultancy, has been diligently tracking public opinion and behavior surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak since it hit the United States in March. I recently spoke with Eliot to discuss his views on how the world has changed in response to the pandemic.
Mark Travers: First and foremost, what exactly have you been tracking, and why?
Eliot Roth: We were one of the first companies to start tracking Coronavirus back in March. We created the CoronaVirus Sentiment tracker because we wanted to do our part. Since we couldn’t research a cure, we decided to do what we do best.
The CI-SONAR CoronaVirus Sentiment tracker is an online survey fielded every other week. It is weighted to be representative of the U.S. as a whole, with an average sample size of around 1400 respondents per month. Topical questions are rotated in and out, but a core group of questions have been present since March.
Travers: Looking at your data from March to now, what have been some of the biggest changes in public opinion regarding the pandemic?
Roth: To be honest, things are changing so fast, it’s almost hard to keep up with it all. Perhaps it’s best to start with some of the statistics related to the disease itself. For instance, we’ve found, not surprisingly, a significant decrease in the amount of people not knowing anyone who has contracted the disease. In March, approximately 90% of Americans did not know anyone who had tested positive for Covid-19. Currently, that number is at about 60%.
While the disease has certainly increased in prevalence, this has not translated into an increased appetite for a vaccine. For instance, in May, 23% of Americans indicated that they would not get vaccinated for Covid-19 even if a vaccine were free and easily available. In September, that number rose to 33%.
Travers: Any ideas on what might explain this apparent contradiction?
Roth: That’s difficult to say, but it may have to do with the politicization of the Coronavirus pandemic, especially as the U.S. presidential election draws near. Perhaps the biggest takeaway, from my perspective, is just how polarized the country is. Those who are conservative have totally different views on Coronavirus than those who are liberal, not only on how the president is doing but on whether there is even a problem in the first place. Furthermore, opinions differ widely on how quickly the country should return to normal. I know this is not shocking given the state of the nation, but it is surprising to see just how big the differences are.
Travers: Very interesting. I’ll now ask the opposite question. Are there any attitudes and opinions that have remained stable over the months that you have been running the survey?
Roth: Yes. For one, it’s surprising how little change there has been in the percentage of Americans expressing panic/fearfulness with respect to Coronavirus. In March, 17% of respondents expressed high Covid-19 anxiety. Interestingly, that number has remained stable, at 17%, into September. There are two ways to look at this. On one hand, it suggests that the United States’ government has been largely ineffective at calming its citizens’ Covid-19 anxieties. On the other hand, anxiety has remained stable even as the virus has increased its spread.
Digging deeper, we’ve noticed that people’s anxiety levels depend largely on political affiliation. Across the entire data range, approximately 24% of politically liberal Americans report high levels of Covid-19 anxiety while only 12% of conservatives report the same. This, again, speaks to the politicization of the pandemic, as well as the geographic distribution of the virus.
Interestingly, Donald Trump’s approval rating with respect to how he’s handled the pandemic has remained surprisingly stable; 19% of Americans felt that Trump was doing an excellent job handling the pandemic in March while 19% felt the same way in September. If anything, this suggests that people’s views on Trump’s handling of the virus reflects their views on Trump in general.
Travers: What about lifestyle changes? Is the “new normal” here to stay or will things return to the way they were?
Roth: Our data suggest that many of the lifestyle changes people have made in response to Coronavirus are here to stay. For example, we asked people how likely they would be to return to their pre-Covid routine with respect to five lifestyle activities: ordering groceries for pickup or delivery, ordering restaurant takeout, cooking at home, exercising, and shopping online. In April, approximately 42% of people expected to return to their pre-Covid routine with regard to these activities. By September, that number had dropped 16%, to 26%.
Travers: Turning to the economy, how do people’s financial anxieties compare to their concerns regarding personal and public health?
Roth: This one is interesting. Since June, we have been asking people what concerns them most about the Covid-19 pandemic. Is it the risk it poses to their own health or the health of the people they care about? Is it the risk it poses to their household finances? Or is it something else, such as the inability to access health services, not being able to take a family vacation, or rising social unrest? Among all these possibilities, the threat Covid-19 poses to the American economy is the area people are most concerned about – more than the health risk, more than the threat of prolonged closures, and more than their inability to access health services.
Furthermore, the data around devastated industries are striking. The travel and entertainment industries are taking a beating, especially movie theaters, restaurants and airlines. It is not clear how soon these industries will bounce back, but for many of these companies, it will not be fast enough to survive. When these industries do bounce back, there will be room for new entrants. It could be a rebirth of sorts and an opportunity for innovation.
Travers: How can people contact you for more information regarding the CoronaVirus Sentiment tracker?
Roth: Email us at email@example.com and we can send you a copy of the full report.