Opinion polls are a useful indicator of attitudes towards the pandemic

The pandemic is provoking anguish in all societies. But reactions towards containment measures vary from one public to the other.
Sunday 12/04/2020
A man wearing protective mask walks in the middle of the street in Paris Friday April 10, 2020, during a nationwide confinement to counter the COVID-19. (AP)
A man wearing protective mask walks in the middle of the street in Paris Friday April 10, 2020, during a nationwide confinement to counter the COVID-19. (AP)

Opinion polls provide useful indicators of how the coronavirus pandemic is playing out across the world and the Arab region.

Interesting insights can be gleaned from surveys conducted by Gallup and Pew Research Center in the US, IFOP in France and Sigma Conseil in Tunisia.

The common denominator seems to be anxiety about the disease. The IFOP survey showed that 61% of the French were worried about themselves and their families.

In Tunisia, the Sigma survey showed that 98% felt COVID-19 was “dangerous.” The pandemic evoked fear among 59% of respondents.

The pandemic is provoking anguish in all societies. But reactions towards containment measures vary from one public to the other.

There remains an issue of lack of trust in the authorities in France, with 57% of the French thinking their government has not been totally honest with them about the pandemic. Their distrust could explain, at least in part, their initial reluctance to abide by instructions for confinement.

In Tunisia, excessive trust in the government might help explain the complacent attitude of sections of the public. No less than 84% of the Sigma poll respondents said they were confident the government was “doing a good job” and more than 70% of them expressed optimism about the authorities’ ability to fight the pandemic. This seems to have led too many Tunisians to act as if they did not have to play their part in implementing the confinement and social distancing measures. The Tunisian government’s messaging might have been too reassuring. Other countries chose to emphasise the most dire of scenarios to convince their populations of the need to accept stringent restrictions.

The feeling of being faced with a common enemy seems to have bridged the usual divide between host societies and migrants and ethnic and religious minorities. The bonds of commonality are being buttressed by the role played by migrants or nationals of recent migrant origin as healthcare professionals on the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic. Empathy for the huge number of COVID-19 patients has also overtaken most considerations in the way the Middle East looks at the West.

Still, there was a level of political polarisation in the way the COVID-19 threat was initially perceived. In the early weeks of the pandemic, conservative and right-wing politicians in the West tended to underplay the seriousness of the peril. Their attitude carried over to their political constituencies.

A Gallup poll conducted in March in the US showed that while 73% of Democrats felt worried about the virus, only 42% of Republicans shared the feeling.

There was also a tendency among conservative audiences in the US and Europe to believe in conspiracy theories about the origin of the pandemic. If 26% of the French said they believed that COVID-19 was created in a laboratory, no less than 40% of the far-right Rassemblement National (The National Rally) felt that way.

Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, saw logic in the conspiracy theories. “Throughout history, there were diseases which escaped from labs. These things happen,” she said.

In the US, 23% of the general public backed the conspiracy theory that the virus originated in a lab. The percentage was nearly 40% among US audiences of the Fox News group.

As in France and the US, a substantial section of the public in Tunisia believes the pandemic originated in a lab, with 46% agreeing that it was the result of a US strategy to “weaken China” while 30% thought it had a natural origin.

The shock and fear created by the unprecedented nature of the pandemic in its global scope, rapid contagion and lethal effect, can explain the propensity of some segments of the public to seek far-fetched explanations. High rates of access to the internet, especially in these times of confinement and work stoppages, have helped spread conspiracy theories.

Such theories have traditionally been more rife in far-right circles with a carry-over effect on other conservative segments of the public. On far-right social media sites, suspicion regarding the origin of the pandemic was not limited to China; it also included 5G communications technology.

Public opinion is also revealing when it comes to the weaknesses of anti-COVID-19 strategies in various countries. In Tunisia, 57% said they could tolerate a month or less of lockdown; only 15% were willing to bear more than six months. The reason may be that, as the survey showed, 56% were not working and that only 9% were working from home.

In the US, where public-health authority is devolved to the states, three-quarters of the country has been advised to stay at home and public opinion, for now, largely supports tough measures to contain the virus. But that may change, along with attitudes to the pandemic.

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