Italy: A Warning

March 17, 2020
Coronavirus | Healthcare

On Thursday last week, Redfield & Wilton Strategies conducted two polls on coronavirus and government responses to the outbreak in the United Kingdom and the United States. At that moment in time, hardly any social distancing measures had been imposed by governments in either nation, apart from cancellations, closures, or work-from-home measures independently executed by private organisations. Total confirmed cases of the virus then numbered in the low thousands in the United States and below a thousand in the United Kingdom.

In both countries, our polls found only a moderate level of concern about coronavirus and its potential effect on the public health. A small majority of respondents indicated that they had taken some action since it had become a public issue, and respondents were even roughly split as to whether the new virus was more dangerous than the seasonal flu. When asked how concerned they would be if they contracted the virus themselves, a plurality in both countries rated their concern to likely be a 3 out of 5, defined as “I think I would be fine, but it would be very unpleasant.”

Given the ongoing exponential growth of the virus in both countries, we expected then that the outbreak was going to worsen in the coming weeks and even months (especially in the United Kingdom, which, at that moment in time, embraced a strategy of allowing the majority of the population to contract the illness). As such, we decided to conduct a similar poll over the weekend in a country where the situation was comparably significantly worse –– Italy –– to get a sense of what changes in public opinion may occur in the United States and United Kingdom in the very near future.

It is so far unclear why Italy, of all countries across the world, has been the hardest hit by this pandemic after its outbreak in China. It may be that certain characteristics specific to Italy make it particularly vulnerable to a coronavirus outbreak. After all, the virus has most affected the elderly, and Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world. Many households in the country are intergenerational, and interactions between all generations are frequent: connecting carriers of the illness, who frequently travel, socialize and work, to the more isolated and vulnerable elderly populations. Interactions between Italians also often involve a high amount of physical contact.

Bad luck may be a critical factor. It could simply be that, where other nations initially succeeded in contact tracing and testing, Italy might have unluckily missed the first cases of coronavirus that entered the country, allowing local transmission to unfortunately fester unnoticed. In that case, the only difference between Italy and other countries that have, so far, not put in place any extreme measures to halt the spread of the virus is merely time. As of now, there is little to no evidence to suggest otherwise.

When our poll of 1,500 Italians was conducted this past weekend, Italy had been under lockdown for almost a week. Compared to the United Kingdom and the United States, Italy had more than 10,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Asked what they thought of their government’s decision to implement a national quarantine––an extreme measure, let it be noted––88% of respondents thought it was the right one.

Which of the following statements is closest to your view of the Italian government’s decision to implement a nationwide quarantine?

This percentage was significantly higher than what British and American citizens thought of what Italy had done so far. When asked specifically about the timing of the decision, Italians overwhelmingly thought the quarantine had come too late.

What do you think of the timing of the Italian government’s decision to implement a nationwide quarantine?

Respondents in the UK and United States, by comparison, were more split on whether the timing of the Italian government’s quarantine came too late or at about the right time. Over time, as more and more cases pile up in their homelands, Americans and Brits may likewise think action by their own governments came too short. Until then, they may not intrinsically feel and see the scale of the threat before them.

This difference in understanding of the threat can be seen in differing responses to a range of questions. When asked how worried they would be if they contracted coronavirus themselves, a fifth of Italians said they would be worried they would lose their lives, compared to a tenth of Americans and 9% of Brits.

On a scale of 1 to 5, to what extent would you be concerned about your own personal health if you contracted coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Nearly half of Italians would be very worried about its effect on their health. Only about a quarter of those in Britain and in the United States think the same. At the opposite end of the spectrum, about a fifth of Brits and of Americans thought the virus would result in mild discomfort. Only 6% of Italians thought the same for themselves.

In part, this perception may be due to the fact that Italian hospitals are not testing for asymptomatic cases, unlike in South Korea. In Italy, if most confirmed cases appear to have serious symptoms, then it would be natural to be very worried about contracting the virus.

Thinking about the gravity of the overall threat to the public health, 93% of Italians described themselves as at least somewhat worried, with about two-thirds altogether describing themselves as either 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5 on a scale of concern. In Britain, a similar number of respondents described their level of concern at either a 2 or 3 out of 5. 12% in the UK and 17% in Great Britain thought the crisis was overblown. Only 4% of Italians thought so.

On a scale of 1 to 5, how concerned are you about the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and its impact on the public’s health?

Even on simpler questions as the danger of the virus compared to the seasonal flu, Italians overwhelmingly thought coronavirus to be more dangerous. Less than half of British citizens and only a little more than half of Americans thought the same.

Compared to the seasonal flu, how dangerous do you think coronavirus is?

These responses––and their stark contrast to responses in the US and UK––may seem obvious. The seriousness of the problem is indeed an order of magnitude greater in Italy than in either of the other two nations. And yet, many have argued that where other countries are at this moment is where Italian was only a number of days ago. In less than a fortnight, American and British citizens may find themselves in a similar situation as our Italian respondents did this past weekend when they answered our poll.

As such, our polling results in Italy this past weekend serves as a warning. Before a crisis hits, every preventive measure may seem excessive, an overreaction. After a crisis, such preventive measures will retrospectively appear woefully inadequate.

Our polls in the United Kingdom and United States found respondents to be ready and asking for their government to do more, well before a crisis has hit. On Thursday, when official cases in the UK barely numbered a thousand, three quarters of respondents said they would support social distancing measures imposed by the government. In the United States, where reported numbers were also not as high –– especially for a significantly larger population, a plurality of respondents thought that their government’s measures so far had fallen far short.

Do you support or not support social distancing measure imposed by the Government designed to significantly reduce your interactions with other people? (Such measures include the closing of public spaces and the cancellation of large public events)

If governments do not act as strongly as they can now, public opinion will shift rapidly and start to look like what it is now in Italy in just a short matter of time. Respondents will think their government’s reaction had come far too late. They will increasingly think their government and media had made them complacent to the threat before them. They will certainly regret that much too little was done before the crisis –– especially when there was plenty of information out there to know about the risks.

When asked to look elsewhere, 62% of Italian respondents thought this past weekend that the United Kingdom had underestimated the threat of the coronavirus. 53% thought the same about the United States. By contrast, when they looked towards China, a majority of our Italian respondents thought the Chinese government’s response to be “about right” in terms of estimating the threat.

For each of the following countries, please select whether you think their government’s response has appropriately estimated the scale of the threat to their country’s population from coronavirus?

We certainly hope that no other countries develop as serious a magnitude of a crisis as Italy has in the past few weeks. For further calamities to be avoided, governments everywhere must act decisively now.

This poll is part of Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ ongoing research into public opinion on the coronavirus outbreak and government’s reaction to the crisis. Further results from our polling in the UK, USA, Italy, France, Spain and Germany is featured here.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.