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).

UK government tries to advance coronavirus response, Boris Johnson ‘stable’ in ICU

Updated 08 April 2020

UK government tries to advance coronavirus response, Boris Johnson ‘stable’ in ICU

  • Britain’s leader was in "good spirits,” his spokesman said on Wednesday
  • The UK was slower than many other European nations to close schools, shut businesses and restrict people’s movements in a bid to curb infections

LONDON: Britain’s government sought Wednesday to keep a grip on the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as Prime Minister Boris Johnson started a third day in the intensive care unit of a London hospital being treated for COVID-19.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab chaired a meeting of the government’s COVID-19 crisis committee while the number of virus-related deaths reported in the UK approached the levels seen in the worst-hit European nations, Italy and Spain.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is responding to treatment in intensive care at a central London hospital, his spokesman said on Wednesday, adding the British leader was in "good spirits".
"The prime minister remains clinically stable and is responding to treatment. He continues to be cared for in the intensive care unit at St Thomas' hospital. He is in good spirits," the spokesman told reporters.
The country’s confirmed death toll reached 6,159 as of Tuesday, an increase of 786 from 24 hours earlier. That was the biggest daily leap to date, although the deaths reported Tuesday occurred over several days.
The virus has hit people from all walks of life — including Johnson, the first world leader known to have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The 55-year-old prime minister was admitted to St. Thomas’ Hospital late Sunday with a fever and cough that persisted 10 days after he tested positive for the virus.
He was moved to the ICU on Monday night after his condition deteriorated. 
Johnson’s illness has unleashed a wave of sympathy for the prime minister, including from his political opponents. It has also heightened public unease about the government’s response to the outbreak, which faced criticism even with the energetic Johnson at the helm.
Britain was slower than many other European nations to close schools, shut businesses and restrict people’s movements in a bid to curb infections, and the government has struggled to meet its goal of dramatically the number of individuals tested for the virus.
Britain has no official post of deputy or acting prime minister, but Johnson has asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to temporarily take over many of the prime minister’s duties to lead the country’s response to the pandemic.
But Raab’s authority is limited. He can’t fire Cabinet ministers or senior officials, and he won’t hold the prime minister’s weekly audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
In the British political system, the prime minister’s power lies less in the role’s specific responsibilities — which are relatively few — than in the leader’s political capital and authority as “first among equals” in the Cabinet.
That’s especially true in Johnson’s government, which is made up of relatively inexperienced ministers appointed by a prime minister with a big personality and a hefty personal mandate from a resounding election victory in December.
In Johnson’s absence, it’s unclear who would decide whether to ease nationwide lockdown measures the British government imposed on March 23 in response the worldwide pandemic. The initial three-week period set for the restrictions expires next week, but with cases and deaths still growing, officials say it is too soon to change course.
“We need to start seeing the numbers coming down,” Argar told the BBC. “That’s when you have a sense, when that’s sustained over a period of time, that you can see it coming out of that.
“We’re not there yet and I don’t exactly know when we will be. The scientists will tell us that they are constantly modelling the data and they’re constantly looking at those stats.”
Meanwhile, officials are watching anxiously to see whether Britain’s hospitals can cope when the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients reaches its peak. Before the outbreak, the UK had about 5,000 intensive care beds, and the government has been scrambling to increase that capacity.
The Nightingale Hospital — a temporary facility for coronavirus patients built in nine days at London’s vast ExCel conference center — admitted its first patients on Wednesday. It can accommodate 4,000 beds, if needed. even other temporary hospitals are being built around the country.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the city, which is the epicenter of Britain’s outbreak, had one-quarter of its existing hospital beds still available, as well as the new Nightingale hospital.
“It demonstrates the can-do attitude of not just Londoners but those around the country who have helped us get ready for the peak of this virus,” he said.