2 weeks ago, I went on an early morning run. The streets were empty, and around the world, as other countries began to see the worst that Coronavirus (a disease otherwise known as COVID19 and caused by the SARS-CoV-2 strain) could bring, I wondered if the same could happen to my country.
I wondered if I would find myself in a reality where I ran in streets with names, but so empty that they lacked personality.
Aside from being a biological phenomenon, Coronavirus has proved a test of many things: leadership, human cooperation and above all of the information systems that modern society has in place. This has prompted many analysts to conclude that the real pandemic here is that of misinformation, with many internet users feeling overwhelmed by the constant updates on a virus that we still seem to know so little about.
However, in a public health context, evaluating the beliefs of the population in relation to this pandemic not only tests the information systems of a country, but ultimately puts into perspective the effectiveness of the health promotion and education systems that a country has in place. As health promotion is one of the most powerful tools when it comes to achieving individual behaviour change, these systems could be key in the prevention of future pandemics, and could ultimately ‘flatten the curve’ of the current one.
Bearing this in mind, I recently distributed a survey across my social media networks that sought to evaluate people’s beliefs about the virus, and draw associations between their perceptions, and their age.
Getting Boomers to Care
In the United States, various publications reported that the age group most concerned about COVID19 and it’s effects were millennials(those born between 1982 and 2000, according to the US Census Bureau), and the age group least concerned were the boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), with many stating that it was ‘just a virus’.
My own survey results seem to corroborate this: over half the surveyed individuals between the ages of 19 to 25, and 39 to 45, perceived that their chances of contracting the virus were high, outstripping the share of 45+ year olds with the same belief by about 9%.
However, things get interesting when you start asking people if they think they could potentially die from COVID19: the amount of 45+ year olds concerned about dying from the virus was double the amount of 19–25 year olds with the same beliefs.
So, those over 45 are a lot less concerned about contracting the virus, but are very concerned about dying from it. This could indicate differences in information sources, or in the types of environments that people in different age groups currently find themselves in. One could speculate that those in younger age brackets were more likely to socialize or find themselves in high risk situations (e.g. living in a college dorm) as opposed to those in older brackets.
However, this is refuted when one considers that the share of under 45’s that reported living in an area where the closure of facilities was already instituted as of last week, outstripped the share of over 45’s who reported the same occurrence. In fact, 0% of over 45’s reported living in areas where facilities started closing, despite the announcement made by President Cyril Ramaposa that the COVID19 pandemic had constituted a national emergency. Theoretically, this increased the chances that an over 45 may have been infected, but they do not perceive this as being so.
But putting environment aside, there is also the possibility that the perception of risk varies across age groups. Here, it’s important to note that the share of individuals who believed, as of last week, that the government was doing enough to flatten the curve was highest in the over 45 age group (28%), when compared to the 19–25 age group (24%). This difference in the perception of government pro-activity could affect risk assessments made in the different age groups. Despite this, however, all age groups didn’t have much faith in the government last week, with all proportions of those who valued the government stance being under 30%.
If one can speculate that COVID19 is actually a pandemic of misinformation and hysteria, it’s worth evaluating which age groups are actually valuing the information that they’re receiving. The over 45’s were the most likely to believe that the media in their country was providing them with accurate information about the progression of the pandemic. Trying to explain this statistic would mean uncovering exactly where they get their information from: are they the most likely to read print newspapers and watch the state news channel, or are they also getting their news from social media?
Don’t Spread the Hysteria
Despite perceiving their chances of infection as high, the 19–25 year old age group was less likely to define their worry as ‘panic’ when compared to the over 45’s. This could be explained by less of them believing that they could die from COVID19, a dominant belief held by young people across the world which is being disproven by reports of young people slipping into critical condition or dying from the disease. This statistic could reveal a bout of misinformation reaching younger demographics, which could hamper efforts in place to halt COVID19’s progression.
What’s more, those in younger demographics (under the age of 38) are more likely to believe that COVID19 is a possible bioweapon: a claim that has been refuted by the gene sequencing of the virus, which proved that it is likely to have come from either bats or pangolins, and is thus of zoonotic origin. With those in these demographics thus being exposed to conspiracy theories, one would also expect that they are the demographic most likely to have received social media chain messages advertising bogus cures, but here’s where it (once again) get’s interesting.
Those which one assumes are most active on social media (19 to 25 years of age) are also those who were least likely to have been exposed to these messages (those advertising unapproved cures). The most likely age group were those between the ages of 32 and 38, outstripping the percentage of over 45’s with the same exposure by 17%. So, maybe not everybody’s grandmother has stopped taking their statins in lieu of other unsupported medication, but one also has to take into account that these statistics do not reflect the likelihood that one would act on the information. We do not know whether all 19 to 25 year olds, despite being the least exposed group, acted on the information they received.
Isolate, Isolate, Isolate
Across the world, governments have put policies in place that have made self-isolation mandatory and enforceable by law. By decreasing the amount of human contact in a population, one decreases the probability of people spreading the virus, thus making it one of the most effective preventative measures.
However, it relies on individual behavior change, which is influenced by the information one receives.
Prior to lockdowns being instituted around the world, many governments urged citizens exhibiting flu-like symptoms to self isolate, and call hotlines if they had recent travel or contact history that would be suggestive of COVID19 infection.
It once again comes as a surprise that, despite being the age group least concerned about contracting the virus, the over 45’s were more likely to self-isolate if they started exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Perhaps, though, these statistics do not contradict each other: if one trusts the media, has faith in their government, and is more willing to voluntarily undertake the necessary precautions, it does become true that their chances of infection are lower.
Going for voluntary testing when one suspects infection is crucial: it allows for sick individuals to receive the necessary medical care, and enables the tracing of other people that may have been exposed to the virus. It thus seems contradictory that, despite being the demographic that perceives their chances of infection as high, the 19–25’s are the least likely to go for testing when exhibiting flu-like symptoms, and are also (when compared to an over 45) more likely to travel to other countries during the outbreak.
It thus doesn’t seem far-fetched to see reports of American college students still heading to beaches for their spring break, despite warnings not to do so: a phenomenon which could be explained by this age group believing that they are less likely to die from the virus.
Laugh it off
Are younger people still more willing to travel because they aren’t taking the pandemic seriously? One could speculate that it is a joke to them, but in a world where humor is often a coping mechanism, it comes as no surprise that younger populations are more likely to appreciate memes, jokes and other pieces of satire that can be distributed on social media networks. Whether this is a result of being better acquainted with the functioning of social media ecosystems, or because they perceive their chances of death to be lower, 19 to 15 year olds are definitely those most likely to be bopping to the latest hit song, Coronavirus.
However, an important point here is the potential use of humor for educational purposes in this demographic: if they are the most likely to appreciate it, then they are also, by extension the most likely to respond positively to educational messages in these contexts.
To Wrap it Up
Knowing the likely beliefs of each age group could lead to more directed health promotion efforts. However, achieving this would mean knowing where each age group gets their information from and then using these avenues to address gaps in knowledge. Ultimately, people will only change their behavior when they know the reasons why. Until then, younger demographics may continue to act irresponsibly, while older demographics may continue to underestimate their chance of infection.
Either way, targeted health promotion strategies seem to be the way forward, addressing gaps in knowledge where they matter most, thus yielding positive outcomes.