Blog: Covid-19 anxiety and behaviour: different in different countries?

Zafer Büyükkeçeci blogs about his new research looking at how people living in different countries have reacted and responded to the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting health, social, mental, and economic well-being worldwide. Cooperating, by taking precautions such as wearing masks and regular hand washing, is at the heart of efforts to bring the pandemic under control. But do our levels of anxiety and behavioural response to the disease depend on the sort of society we live in? And can this help us better understand the consequences of the pandemic?

It took just three months for there to be 120,000 cases of the virus in 144 countries with 4291 deaths and Covid-19 has affected all continents except Antarctica.

Given this unprecedented period in history, characterized by global lockdowns, closure of schools worldwide, massive economic disruption and substantial uncertainty about the duration and intensity of the pandemic, we wanted to get a handle on how societies differ in terms of mental well-being and health-protective behavioural responses, in order to better understand the consequences of the pandemic and the tackling of it.

Focusing on 100,000 people from 54 countries, our study investigates what aspects or features of a country might determine anxiety levels and how people respond to the pandemic.

The study uses three data sources: 

  1. The worldwide COVID-19 Attitudes and Beliefs dataset 
  2. Global Preferences survey
  3. Human Development Index datasets

The data covered the period between 20 March 2020 and 21 May 2020, with people being asked various questions about how anxious they were about the disease and how it was affecting their life and the lives of their family. They were also asked how they were behaving in response to Covid-19 – such as were they staying at home, attending social gatherings, washing hands more often. 

Anxiety and behaviour

Responses to the questions on anxiety and behaviour were used to create indices which could be integrated with information on the different countries’ economic preferences and values as well as development. 

Country factors taken into account were economic preferences and human development. Economic preferences covers the following:

  • Time preference: refers to the willingness to wait
  • Risk preference: refers to the willingness to take risks
  • Positive reciprocity: individuals’ propensity to act in a positive reciprocal way
  • Negative reciprocity: refers to the willingness to punish others or take revenge
  • Altruism: refers to the willingness to give good causes without expecting any return
  • Trust: whether other people have the best intentions

And human development:

  • Human Development Index: the geometric mean of normalized means of the standard of living, education, and health.
  • Standard of living: gross national income (GNI) per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP).
  • Education: the average of the adult literacy rate and the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary gross school enrollment ratio.
  • Health: annual life expectancy at birth.

The results showed that women were more anxious than men during the period they were asked about. Interestingly, people who were single or divorced felt less nervous than those who were married or cohabiting and had lower scores on the overall anxiety index. 

This could be something to do with socially constructed differences between men and women around things like caring for children, elderly parents and relatives, or other vulnerable members of the family. Similarly, married individuals might be more anxious as they must protect, assist, and nurture their family members. Women are also more vulnerable than men are to crisis-driven economic fall-outs and job loss, as they have, on average, lower income than men and higher poverty rates. It is also worth considering how much more difficult for women than men it can be to find alternative jobs or income because of those greater domestic responsibilities and demands.

When it came to how people behaved in response to the pandemic, women and couples were more proactive than men and singles, respectively, across all the measures looked at. This supports previous research showing that women are 50 per cent more likely than men to practice health-protective behaviours in a pandemic or epidemic. 

Patient and developed

Anxiety was less common among people from more patient and developed countries such as Austria, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. Other developed countries where anxiety was low included  Denmark, Israel, Korea, Norway, and Singapore. It’s possible to speculate that these people might be inclined to take a more relaxed approach to guidance and restrictions or that they might be less proactive about things like hand washing and social distancing and that, therefore, they might be  more adversely affected by the ongoing situation. 

Altruistic societies such as Canada, Indonesia, and Philippines suffered more from anxiety. An explanation here could be that individuals living in altruistic societies feel more anxious because of being unable to help family, friends and neighbours because of social distancing rules and self-isolation. 

It is possible that individuals living in altruistic societies might feel more anxious because of being unable to help others due to social distancing measures and self-isolation. This is in line with earlier research which found that altruistic individuals were more anxious during the Covid-19 pandemic in China.

Countries with higher levels of positive reciprocity and trust, such as Canada, China, Hungary, and Spain, took more considerable precautions. This could be to do with social norms in a particular society where what people think others might approve or disapprove of is considered important.

Stress and worries

Interestingly, reported stress and worries were lower among more developed countries (i.e. countries having higher levels of standard of living, education, and health) highlighting the importance of access to resources and social equality during disasters. Indeed, nearly one third of the cross-country variation in anxiety was explained by development.

The Covid-19 crisis has affected everyday life substantially with cities locking down, schools closing, millions of individuals asked to work from home all to slow the spread of the infections. The success of measures introduced to fight try to wrest control of the disease depend entirely on individual and community co-operation, something which recent events have shown is by no means a given.

Although there are some limitations and challenges around the samples and measures used in the research, it does, nevertheless, shine a light on the different ways in which people and societies have responded to the unprecedented circumstances in which the world has found itself in 2020 and provides some indications of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for different societies. 

A better understanding of the drivers behind women being more anxious but behaving more proactively and ‘responsibly’ than men is an area that would be interesting to explore further and could provide useful evidence for those looking to support people through the pandemic and to prepare us better should we face further challenging times with Covid-19 or indeed a different pandemic. 

Cross-country differences in anxiety and behavioral response to the Covid-19 pandemic is research by Zafer Büyükkeçeci and is published in the Journal of European Societies.