COVID-19: Public threat perceptions and support for global cooperation

COVID-19: Public threat perceptions and support for global cooperation

Coronavirus is both a global and deeply personal challenge, with profound contradictions of closeness and separation. Closeness matters: It’s how the virus spreads, but it’s also the key to our survival - collaboration, greater togetherness and indeed love. On the other hand, the natural result of isolation, distancing, lockdowns and border closures is greater separation, and in some cases greater dread and fear of the ‘other.’ Is the global threat bringing the world together or pushing us apart?

As José María Vera of Oxfam put it “we must talk of the world. We all need each other’s help right now. It is clearer than ever that none of us will be safe until all of us are safe.” The pandemic is a clarion for greater international cooperation. There is a pragmatic and a hard-headed logic to the fact that “if the virus is not defeated in Africa, it will only bounce back to the rest of the world” – as expressed by Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed.

Pandemics are scary. Evidence shows such threats induce deep evolutionary psychological mechanisms that increase our desire to turn inward and fear outsiders. Xenophobia, it has been argued, is a maladapted evolutionary solution to a fear of infectious disease, and so it’s no surprise that fear of COVID-19 is leading to widespread stigmatisation and discrimination. Likewise, it doesn’t come as a shock then that monikers like “Chinese Virus” are being deliberately amplified in political arenas. Meanwhile, the closing of borders – ultimately a correct response from a public health and epidemiological perspective – can have lingering psychological effects. The “Home First” sentiment is further reinforced by the unremitting focus of the UK Government and media on the domestic response.

Public support for international cooperation is not an ideological response to the pandemic, but a pragmatic one.

Does threat then automatically mean a shrinking of sympathies? Adam Smith, in his "Theory of Moral Sentiments," was sceptical about man’s (sic) dominion over the distant stranger’s happiness. The virus has surely hit home the weakness of our powers – namely our humanity. But has the virus narrowed the public’s duty of care and happiness to just our family, friends, and country?

Perceptions of threat

In a recent Development Engagement Lab survey (24-26 April; n=1,761) we asked respondents in Britain to assess the level of threat the COVID-19 virus presented to themselves, their family, local community, their job, the country, developing countries, and to the world. After more than a month in lockdown, an estimated 2 million job losses, 187,000 people infected, and 28,000 deaths in the UK alone, we were expecting respondents to think the level of threat was greatest closest to home. The virus is happening here and now. But, as shown in Figure 1 below, the data tell a very different story. Just less than 1 in 4 (23%) say that the virus is more than a moderate threat to themselves, rising to 31% for their families and communities. And surprisingly, just 20% say COVID poses a (very) high threat to their job.

However, while the data suggest respondents perceive a significant threat for themselves and those closest to them, they identified a far bigger threat to the UK (60%), to the world (68%). Most surprisingly, they recognized that the virus poses the greatest threat to developing countries. A full three-quarters – exactly 75% – of the British public see the threat the coronavirus presents to developing countries as high or very high. These results show a clear pattern: the more distant from the individual – family, community, country, developing countries and the world – the greater the perceived threat.

We cannot say from this data what’s driving respondents’ view that the virus poses a higher threat to developing countries. But the public are not wrong. Despite the significant challenges COVID-19 poses for the UK and other wealthy countries, poor countries are less able to withstand the shock: weak health care systems, densely populated cities, slums, and shared living spaces, and the inability for many to access clean water and soap makes COVID more perilous. Poor health and social care will be compounded by fragile economies: a UNU-WIDER report has estimated that half a billion people could be pushed into poverty by the virus. COVID has laid bare the disproportionate impacts pandemics have for poor people, both at home and elsewhere.

International cooperation

But how has the pandemic changed attitudes towards international cooperation as a solution to such global challenges? As already noted, one response to threat is for individuals and countries to look inward and take an increasingly isolationist approach. Countries have (rightly) closed borders as part of a range of actions to mitigate against the most severe impacts of the virus. But how quickly will borders reopen? And how will populists seize upon these decisions to retreat inward?

Another surprise: The overwhelming response to the pandemic has not been to isolate on the global stage, but to support international cooperation. As shown in Figure 2, 79% of respondents (strongly) agree that the pandemic shows that international cooperation in addressing global problems is more important than ever. Just 4% (strongly) disagree with the statement.

But what’s behind these numbers? Our view is not that the virus has turned the British public into globalists overnight. Public support for international cooperation is not an ideological response to the pandemic, but a pragmatic one. International cooperation is about problem-solving: partnership, shared responsibility, and coordinating to mitigate the worst impacts of the virus and work towards global recovery.

A way forward

The public’s recognition of the challenges of the COVID pandemic and strong preference for international cooperation suggests an important opportunity for development organisations: It’s a chance to encourage and support the public as they come to terms with what had become widespread complacency. It’s the responsibility of development organisations at this moment to highlight for the public the interconnectedness of pandemic threats to other global perils: climate change, inequality and a dearth of sustainable solutions.

The lesson is, we shouldn’t be focussed on building support for international organisations or development assistance, as tempting as it is – especially for those working in them. Instead, we need to build support for solutions: The World Health Organisation is not valuable in and of itself, but in its ability to help countries prepare and respond to pandemics, coordinate supply chains, provide scientific advice and support efforts to find a vaccine. It also requires a write-off of developing countries' debt, collaboration and coordination through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to develop and scale up effective COVID-19 vaccines, the International Monetary Fund to extend credit lines and create new Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), the World Bank and Regional Development Banks to make loans and grants, and the G20 governments to dig deep and fund all of this.

By favouring solutions over institutions, we meet the public where they are: aware of the need for change and action, but exhausted and still suspicious of institutions. A public that understands the necessity of global cooperation is looking for impacts and solutions. This is where we will find a receptive public.

The data for this survey, COVID-19 Message Testing Analysis, April 2020, was collected as by the Development Engagement Lab, a research programme based at University College London and University of Birmingham.

Written by

David Hudson

David Hudson

Professor of Politics and Development in the University of Birmingham

Jennifer Hudson

Jennifer Hudson

Professor of Political Behaviour at University College London (UCL)

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