Middle East, global attitudes reshaped by coronavirus pandemic

A health worker awaits new patients at a coronavirus testing station in Stamford, Connecticut in the US. The virus has not only had global economic implications, but is starting to shift public and business attitudes on policy. (AFP)
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Updated 24 March 2020

Middle East, global attitudes reshaped by coronavirus pandemic

  • YouGov research tracks potential impact of health crisis on business, politics and public behavior in 25 countries
  • Research shows fear of infection is greater in Asia and the Middle East than in Europe and North America

DUBAI: For weeks now, the coronavirus pandemic has been dominating day-to-day life across the world, to say nothing of news headlines.

In view of the ever changing situation, global research firm YouGov has been conducting research in 25 countries to track the potential impact of the health crisis on everything from business and politics to public behavior.

As the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) reaches new parts of the world and governments and businesses respond differently in different countries, attitudes to the pandemic are evolving.

In the coming weeks, ongoing trackers such as YouGov will convey an idea of how the general population around the world is feeling about the crisis and how this is affecting different aspects of life.

YouGov’s COVID-19 data will examine what has changed and highlight key differences across 25 countries. The data gathered by the tracker, stretching as far back as late February, shows shifts that, in the normal course of things, might have taken decades.

The results show how populations globally are being forced to change their attitudes and behaviors as the number of countries and cities hit by infections continues to rise.

In addition, as the number of countries or territories with signs of local transmission of the virus increases every day, governments are taking ever more radical measures to limit propagation.

As of March 21, Johns Hopkins University in the US had tracked 275,500 confirmed live coronavirus cases globally — 81,300 in mainland China and 194,200 outside China.

The numbers represented a global increase of 156,100 cases in a week: On March 14 Johns Hopkins reported 75,100 live cases in China, and 81,000 outside.

Fear of contracting COVID-19

Those living in Asia and the Middle East are far more fearful of catching the disease — generally between 53 percent and 83 percent — than people in Europe and North America — generally between 27 percent and 45 percent.

YouGov data suggests that this is because the percentage of people in Asia and the Middle East who are familiar with the virus is higher than it is in Europe or the US.

Moreover, people in Europe and the US are far less likely than those living in Asia to see COVID-19 as a threat to public health in their own countries. In Italy, the worst affected area of the European outbreak, levels of public concern are much higher.

The most recent YouGov survey found almost three quarters of Italians were either very or somewhat scared of contracting the infection.

This is unsurprising given a significant portion of the country is in lockdown, and the number of deaths in the country now exceeds the number of deaths in China.

It is also worth noting that fear levels in Asia-Pacific countries have remained static or only risen relatively slowly since YouGov’s tracker launched in February.

The tracker has shown that fear of contracting COVID-19 has risen the fastest in Europe. For instance, the UK saw an increase in fear levels from 24 percent to 48 percent in between March 1 and March 20, while the jump in Germany was from 21 percent to 37 percent between March 4  and March 16.

Preventative measures

The YouGov tracker results show that COVID-19 has had a greater impact on behavior in Asia and the Middle East so far than it has in Europe and North America.

The most visible difference in global attitudes comes down to face-mask use. In almost all European countries, and the US and Canada, use of masks is below 10 percent. In most Asian countries, however, it is around half or more, and rises to as high as 86 percent in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

At between 35-39 percent, use of face masks in the Middle Eastern is below the Asian range.

As the coronavirus spreads further through the US, these attitudes may change. At the end of February, 25 percent of Americans said they were very likely to consider wearing a face mask when in crowded public spaces such as airports or on public transportation, while 27 percent said they were somewhat likely to consider doing so.

Attitudes to social distancing

Distinctions between global regions are less obvious when it comes to support for measures that national governments could take to combat the spread of infections.

Generally speaking, the most popular measures are to quarantine anyone who has come into contact with a COVID-19 patient, alongside banning and quarantining flights from China and other countries with active cases.

Public opinion in Germany in particular has registered the most notable swing in favor of banning flights from the rest of the world.

While only 29 per cent of Germans supported banning flights from countries with COVID-19 cases at the beginning of March, this figure has since risen to 50 percent.

Over the same time period, the number of Germans wanting to ban flights from China specifically has risen from 41 percent to 53 percent.

Attitudes in Indonesia are significantly different from the rest of its regional neighbors. At the time other Asian countries were seeing large numbers choosing to avoid crowded places, the figure in Indonesia barely shifted from 26 percent to 31 percent.

It has since risen to 51 percent, but this still puts Indonesia far behind their neighbors.

Impact on businesses

While many businesses are braced for the potentially devastating economic impact of coronavirus, some brands are benefiting.

Following reports of 10 confirmed coronavirus deaths in Hong Kong, residents began queueing up overnight outside pharmacies to stockpile face masks.

As a response to this, on January 31, Watsons, a Hong Kong chain, announced on its Facebook page that each of its 230 branches would supply face masks, and a quota system would be but in place for each customer to prevent stockpiling.

It also reassured customers that more would be arriving in early February. In addition to this, it pledged to donate face masks to the elderly.

Watsons’ response to the coronavirus in this time of fear and panic has boded well for its brand health scores.

Since the start of the year, YouGov BrandIndex data has shown a significant jump in their awareness and customer recommendation scores.

In the UK, as many make preparations for social distancing, perhaps unsurprisingly, BrandIndex data has shown positive results for key home comfort providers — Deliveroo, Netflix and Andrex.

Governments under pressure

According to an Economist/YouGov poll, a majority of Americans (56 percent) said the government should be spending more to protect the country against the spread of infectious diseases.

Many (41 percent) also felt US President Donald Trump was not taking the virus seriously enough.

With UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government taking increasingly strict steps aimed at trying to bring COVID-19 under control, a YouGov survey for the UK’s Channel 5 News examined what Britons thought of the state response so far.

When surveyed on March 16 and 17, close to four out of 10 (38 percent) said the government was not reacting to the coronavirus outbreak sufficiently.

A similar figure believed the reaction to be about right, while 10 percent thought the government’s response was an overreaction.

Since then, the UK has announced that schools, restaurants and gyms will close and loans would be made available to businesses affected by the pandemic.

In Asia, the data suggests a huge shift in public desire for respective Asian governments to distribute free face masks. The shift took place between late February and early March — just when people in these areas were also starting in large numbers to avoid crowded public places.

Figures rose by at least 24 percent in each country, with the increase particularly rapid in Malaysia (from seven percent to 57 percent) and the Philippines (eight percent to 54 percent).

WHO stops hydroxychloroquine trials over safety concerns

Updated 46 sec ago

WHO stops hydroxychloroquine trials over safety concerns

  • Trump has led the push for hydroxychloroquine as a potential shield or treatment for the virus
  • Brazil’s health ministry said it would keep recommending hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19

GENEVA: The WHO suspended trials of the drug that Donald Trump has promoted as a coronavirus defense, fueling concerns about the US president’s handling of the pandemic that has killed nearly 100,000 Americans.
Trump has led the push for hydroxychloroquine as a potential shield or treatment for the virus, which has infected nearly 5.5 million people and killed 345,000 around the world, saying he took a course of the drug as a preventative measure.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has also heavily promoted hydroxychloroquine while the virus has exploded across nation, which this week became the second most infected in the world after the United States.
But the World Health Organization said Monday it was halting testing of the drug for COVID-19 after studies questioned its safety, including one published Friday that found it actually increased the risk of death.
The WHO “has implemented a temporary pause... while the safety data is reviewed,” its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, referring to the hydroxychloroquine arm of a global trial of various possible treatments.
Trump announced last week he was taking the drug, explaining he had decided to take after receiving letters from a doctor and other people advocating it.
“I think it’s good. I’ve heard a lot of good stories,” Trump told reporters then, as he declared it safe.
Trump dismissed the opinions then of his own government’s experts who had warned of the serious risks associated with hydroxychloroquine, with the Food and Drug Administration highlighting reported poisonings and heart problems.
Trump has been heavily criticized for his handling of the virus, after initially downplaying the threat and then repeatedly rejecting scientific analysis.
The United States has by far the world’s highest coronavirus death toll, reaching 98,218 on Monday, with more than 1.6 million confirmed infections.
Despite the WHO suspension, Brazil’s health ministry said Monday it would keep recommending hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19.
“We’re remaining calm and there will be no change,” health ministry official Mayra Pinheiro told a news conference.
Bolsonaro is a staunch opponent of lockdown measures and like Trump has played down the threat of the virus, even as Latin America has emerged as the new global virus hotspot.
Brazil has reported nearly 375,000 cases, widely considered to be far fewer than the real number because of a lack of testing, and more than 23,000 deaths.
Chile also is in the grip of a virus surge, with a record of nearly 5,000 infections in 24 hours on Monday.
While South America and parts of Africa and Asia are only just beginning to feel the full force of the pandemic, many European nations are easing lockdowns as their outbreaks are brought under control.
In hard-hit Spain, Madrid and Barcelona on Monday emerged from one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, with parks and cafe terraces open for the first time in more than two months.
Elsewhere, gyms and swimming pools reopened in Germany, Iceland, Italy and Spain.
And slowing infection rates in Greece allowed restaurants to resume business a week ahead of schedule — but only for outdoor service.
“I’m thrilled to break the isolation of recent months and reconnect with friends,” said pensioner Giorgos Karavatsanis.
“The cafe in Greece has a social dimension, it’s where the heart of the district beats.”
Despite the encouraging numbers, experts have warned that the virus could hit back with a devastating second wave if governments and citizens are careless, especially in the absence of a vaccine.
The latest reminder of the threat came from Sweden, where the COVID-19 death toll crossed 4,000 — a much higher figure than its neighbors.
The Scandinavian nation has gained international attention — and criticism — for not enforcing stay-at-home measures like other European countries.
The extended lockdowns, however, have started to bite globally, with businesses and citizens wearying of confinement and suffering immense economic pain.
Unprecedented emergency stimulus measures have been introduced, as governments try to provide relief to their economies, with the airline and hospitality sectors hit particularly hard because of travel bans.
Lufthansa became the latest major global company to be rescued, as the German government agreed a 9 billion euros ($9.8 billion) bailout for one of the world’s biggest airlines.
But analysts have warned that the pandemic’s economic toll will be even more painful for countries far poorer than Western nations.
In the Maldives, a dream destination for well-heeled honeymooners, tens of thousands of impoverished foreign laborers have been left stranded, jobless and ostracized as the tiny nation shut all resorts to stop the virus.
“We need money to survive. We need our work,” said Zakir Hossain, who managed to send about 80 percent of his $180 a month wage to his wife and four children in Bangladesh before the outbreak.
“I heard that if a Bangladeshi worker dies here, they don’t send his body back and he is buried here,” he said. “I am worried what will happen if I die.”