Public opinion, pandemic infection and policymaking: The COVID-19 story of liberty and death

This blog originally appeared in the COVID-19 Blog of the Collaborative Research Center “The Global Dynamics of Social Policy” at the University of Bremen.

The WHO declared a Global Pandemic on Jan 30th, 2020, based on overwhelming evidence that the highly infectious Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the deadly COVID-19 disease that it causes threatened all of human kind. Despite this clear message, public and government responses varied dramatically by country, city and even neighborhood. Controlling the spread of any global pandemic requires large-scale, cohesive public responses. As there is no global governance, national governments were crucial institutional actors in the pandemic fight.

In Germany, the national government was quick to push German states to adopt cohesive measures in February, and to then ratchet these up in March as infections exploded in places like New York City and Italy and localized regions and events within Germany. In Figure 1, the dotted line are the deaths from COVID-19 and the solid green line is the degree of government lockdown measures. At least in the first wave, Germany was highly successful at curbing the spread of the virus. This contrasts sharply with Sweden, displayed in the middle panel of Figure 1.

Figure 1. Daily deaths per capita and government intervention

Known deaths from COVID-19 data from Johns Hopkins and Dong, Du and Gardner (2020) taken as the deaths per day divided by the population in one-hundred-thousands. Government intervention data from Oxford University Blavatnik School of Government measured as a scale of measures from none (-1) to all possible at the highest degree (+1) (e.g., travel restriction, banned public gatherings and stay-at-home orders).

In Sweden, the constitution prevented lockdown measures in non-war-times. Although the Swedish government encouraged its residents to follow pandemic safety guidelines, the lockdown measures were relatively lax and the infection rate and resulting deaths were among the worst in the world at the outbreak of the pandemic. The Swedish response and even relatively ‘good’ German response paled in comparison to the swift and effective lockdown in South Korea and most East Asian countries). In the lowest panel of Figure 1, the deaths per capita stays nearly at zero and remained there until the time of writing this.

Government response is not the only factor as made clear in the second wave of infection starting in October of 2020. Germany and Sweden had similar death rates in the second wave with a slightly stronger government intervention and slightly less deaths in Germany. However, in South Korea government lockdown was similar to Germany, but they had fraction of the infections and almost no deaths.

Government response is simply a method to control public behaviors. Ultimately the public are the arbiters of infection, and their behaviors explain different outcomes where governments take similar control measures. In Wuhan Province, China the public had little control over their behaviors as they were confined to their homes, subject to biosecurity protocols and ‘policed’ by both actual police and Communist Party-led neighborhood watches for at least 76 days. The lockdown halted the infection and death rates locally, but the virus had already hopped China’s borders leading to the pandemic. By contrast, once arrived in countries like Sweden or the United States, the residents were mostly free to behave as they pleased. The fate of the virus spread was essentially in the public’s hands because their behaviors – movements, contacts and (lack of) awareness – provide the only way the SARS-CoV-2 virus can spread or not.

This means that especially in liberal democratic systems where the governments cannot easily impose lockdown measures, studying human behavior is essential to understanding how to fight a pandemic. Social scientists regularly observe a correlation between sentiments and behaviors. The public forms attitudes toward ‘the virus’ and ‘a pandemic’ from the news and word-of-mouth. Therefore, the contents of media messages play a major role in shaping behaviors indirectly through the information contained in news and editorial articles.

Figure 2 shows how daily infections closely follow the sentiment in media messages. When sentiment is more positive (thick yellow line) it is likely that the public perceive less risk and then engage in less precautionary behavior leading to increases in infections (dashed purple line). At the same time, sentiment is more positive as government restrictions ease (thin green line), thus enabling less precautionary behavior like social gatherings and in-person work; in turn leading to more infections.

Figure 2. Media, government intervention and infection rates in Germany and the U.S.

Sentiment analysis of all available online media sources provided by RavenPack’s Coronavirus Media Monitor, standardized with a rolling average (thick yellow line); infection rate calculated as the 18-day lead deaths from Johns Hopkins data adjusted for the demographic composition of the population (dashed line); government intervention measured Oxford University Blavatnik School of Government.

What is also striking about Figure 2 is that infection rates in Germany show a weaker correlation with media sentiment than in the United States. This is most likely due to stronger government intervention in Germany, whereby individuals have less control over their decisions, or at least will face criminal punishment for not following government guidelines. The apparent association between media sentiment and infections should be caused by public behaviors, but cross-national behavioral data are scarce during the pandemic. However, during a brief window of opportunity from March 15th to April 7th, 2020, Thiemo Fetzer and colleagues fielded a survey asking about precautionary public behaviors in at least 80 countries. Figure 3 compares behaviors with average media sentiment in the last week across these countries and demonstrates a clear correlation between more positive sentiment in media contents and less precautionary behaviors.

Figure 3. Media and public precautionary behaviors in 80 countries, March 15th – April 7th

Media Sentiment provided by RavenPack’s Coronavirus Media Monitor and precautionary behaviors calculated as a scale from the Perceptions and Behaviors at the Onset of COVID-19 survey (Fetzer et al 2020).

National governments are in a tough position during pandemics. They cannot enforce lockdown measures beyond a certain ‘breaking’ point, or the public will simply rebel or ignore them in such large numbers that enforcement becomes impossible. It is therefore not unreasonable to conclude that at least in liberal democratic regimes, the most effective pandemic prevention measures, like those taken in Wuhan, are simply not possible. The old adage ‘give me liberty or give me death’ might therefore be reframed as ‘give me liberty and death’ in pandemic times.

Data and code available at GitHub/nbreznau/covid-liberty-death

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics is a chance to reexamine our priorities

Guest post by Brian Clifton

A little over ten years ago, at 2:46 in the afternoon, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean about 72 kilometers east of the Tohoku region of Japan. It was the 4th largest earthquake ever recorded.  The massive quake immediately triggered effects felt as far away as Chile. 

At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a 14-meter-high tsunami swept over the seawall meant to protect the plant, flooding four of the reactor buildings.  This led to the most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.  Prime Minister Naoto Kan had to decide whether Tokyo, the world`s biggest city, should be evacuated or not.  In the end Prime Minister Kan decided against evacuating Tokyo, though 154,000 people were evacuated from towns near Fukushima Daiichi.  Ten years later about 40,000 of the evacuees still haven`t returned.

There are still 900 tons of melted nuclear fuel inside the damaged reactors.  It is still too dangerous for humans to go near them.  Remote-controlled robots with cameras have offered the only images inside of the damaged reactors.  Officials say that it will take 30-40 years to remove the nuclear fuel, waste and debris at the site.  Even if people do manage to remove everything, there is no real plan yet on how to dispose of this massive amount of radioactive material.  Even more worrying is what will happen if another major earthquake occurs in the meantime.  If the fuel rods in the damaged reactors are ever exposed, it could cause a meltdown that would be far worse than the disaster in 2011.

Approximately 20,000 people died in the Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and thousands more are still listed as missing.

Therefore, in September of 2013 it was with astonishment that residents of Japan heard Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tell the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the situation in Fukushima was “under control.”  Abe`s comments were immediately criticized by people on the left and the right, including former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who said “he was lying.”  However, Abe`s pitch ultimately convinced the IOC, who awarded the 2020 Summer Games to Tokyo.  Just six days after the IOC had made the decision to let Tokyo host the 2020 Summer Olympics, TEPCO (the company that operates the Fukushima Daiichi plant) admitted that Fukushima was “not under control.”  And thus the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics were born out of a lie.  It was a lie that was extremely disrespectful to the people who suffered in Tohoku, and it downplayed the seriousness of the danger that is still present at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant today.

The next time most of the world thought about the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games was when Prime Minister Abe emerged from a green drain pipe awkwardly dressed like Super Mario at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. 

Then came the spectacle of Donald Trump, and many people around the world forgot about the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics again.  Then came COVID-19.

In March of 2020 Prime Minister Abe came under increasing pressure to postpone the 2020 Summer Games because of the coronavirus pandemic.  The IOC and Prime Minister Abe held out as long as possible, but given the evidence of the severity of the pandemic they finally decided to postpone the Olympics and Paralympics one year.

Japan has fared better than most countries during the pandemic, with approximately 499,793 cases and 9,353 deaths reported as of April 11th, 2021.  Unsurprisingly, the densely populated Tokyo metro area has had the largest number of cases and deaths.  However, Japan has been very slow to roll out vaccinations for its residents, with only some health care workers vaccinated thus far. It is still unclear when vaccinations will be available for all residents, but it looks increasingly unlikely that vaccinations will be widespread by the start of the Summer Games, which many doctors and public health officials are saying is imperative before an event of this magnitude.  Also, foreign athletes will not be required to be vaccinated, further adding to the possibility that the Summer Games could turn into a superspreader event.

“A recent poll by national broadcaster NHK found that roughly 80% of Japanese think the games should be canceled or postponed.”

Kuhn 2021

Various polls over the last year have shown that the Japanese public is consistently and firmly opposed to the Summer Games continuing on as planned, with most opposed citing safety concerns related to COVID-19.  However, Tokyo organizers and the IOC persistently continue to stick to their plan of holding the Olympics this summer, completely ignoring the will of the people and refusing to acknowledge the obvious risk to public health.   It could be because the Tokyo Games has collected a record $3.3 billion from domestic sponsors.  Apparently it`s more important for sponsors to sell McDonald`s hamburgers and Asahi Superdry beer than it is to look after the wellbeing of the athletes and the people of Tokyo.  Can`t we as humans do better than this? 

I think everyone can understand the idea of wanting to have a successful Olympics this summer.  During the past year there has been so much misery and difficulty—what would be better than declaring victory over COVID-19 with the Olympics, celebrating athleticism and the triumph of the human spirit? However, the reality is that the dangers of the pandemic are far from over in Japan, and the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is still precarious.  The current situation with the Tokyo Olympics presents us with an opportunity to reexamine our priorities and make choices based on what would be best for the health and safety of the athletes and the people of Japan.  Postponing or Cancelling the Tokyo Summer Games would reflect the best aspects of our humanity.  It would be a real triumph of the human spirit.

Originally from New Orleans, Brian Clifton is a small business owner and longtime resident of Mishima, Japan.

Photo Credits: (top) The heading of a petition against the Olympics (bottom left): a brochure cover reporting “18 Reasons Against the Tokyo Olympics” (bottom right): The new Tokyo Olympic Stadium