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02 July 2020

Higher public attention 'led to earlier government action' during pandemic

Countries with a high level of public attention on the Covid-19 pandemic saw earlier introduction of government measures to limit the spread of the disease, ultimately leading to lower death rates, a new paper has found.

Higher public interest lead to earlier intervention from governments, researchers found.
Higher public interest lead to earlier intervention from governments, researchers found.

The finding was revealed in the paper Public Attention and Policy Responses to COVID-19 Pandemic, which showed that, in countries where there was a high level of public interest in the pandemic, national governments acted earlier to introduce restrictive measures.

Interest in the pandemic was measured by using Google search data of several key terms across 174 countries, from 1 January to 31 March. The researchers used Google Health Trends API to measure searches for ‘corona’, ‘Wuhan virus’, ‘covid’, and ‘Covid-19’.

They found that, in countries where the public interest was particularly strong, governments acted earlier to bring in non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI) such as social distancing, school and workplace closures, and public transport restrictions.

Denmark introduced the first measures eight days after its first Covid-19 case, Ireland after nine days, Portugal after 10 days and Switzerland after only three days. Those countries have seen death rates markedly lower than in countries in which public interest was lower and governments acted later, such as in France (36 days), Spain (37 days), the UK (45 days), and the US (34 days).

The paper notes: “There is a strong link between public attention and the timing of non-pharmaceutical interventions in countries with high institutional quality. Countries with high institutional quality in which public attention increased fast after the first case, like Denmark, Ireland, South Korea, and Switzerland, introduced NPIs soon after the first case was confirmed.

“Countries with high institutional quality but low public attention, like France, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, waited more than a month before introducing the first NPI. These slow responses go together with very high subsequent death tolls.”

Dr Cevat Giray Aksoy, from King’s College London and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said: “In countries with good institutions, high public attention could help to save lives by encouraging governments to respond swiftly.

“Even though our findings should be interpreted as establishing correlational patterns, they could help in saving lives in eventual subsequent pandemic waves. Identifying how strongly the public responds to pandemic threat helps policymakers in their planning. Strong public attention appears both to give politicians a cover to act fast and may help to persuade even politicians who are initially unwilling to impose NPIs.”

The paper was authored by Dr Aksoy, Michael Ganslmeier, from the University of Oxford, and Professor Panu Poutvaara, from the University of Munich.

You can read the paper in full here.

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Cevat Giray Aksoy

Lecturer in Economics