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Many Western countries have fully vaccinated enough of their populations to roll back restrictions, and are navigating the move from pandemic to endemic. 

Other parts of the world, particularly the Asia Pacific region, suppressed the virus for much of 2020 but are now facing the threat of the more contagious Delta variant, with their populations not protected to the same extent.

In this blog, we’ll use findings from our August 2021 Zeitgeist survey, in addition to our ongoing Core research, to see the implications for each part of the world in turn. We’ll address questions like:

  • What’s the mood in countries that may experience winter interventions?
  • Which public health measures are seen as most effective in preventing COVID transmission?
  • What sort of impact are the new lockdowns in APAC having on consumers there?

Most expect restrictions to come back at some point. 

Most people expect COVID-19 restrictions to be re-introduced at some point during the rest of 2021. This is true of all 8 markets we surveyed, ranging from 64% in the U.S to 84% in Italy.

The degree of interventions that people would support being introduced right now are fairly small-scale. 

Mask-wearing is the most supported measure in all countries (49%), far ahead of social distancing (32%), freely available testing (28%), or hand sanitizer in public places (26%).

Only 18% support putting caps on venue capacity, while fewer than 10% support closing nightclubs/bars, mandated curfews, or contact tracing for visits to public places. 

To get a sense of how this has changed, compare this to findings from 12 months prior in the U.S. and UK, before vaccines were introduced. 

Mask-wearing was still the most popular intervention, but there was much more appetite for closing bars and restaurants (27%) or returning to full lockdown (30%). So while appetite for lockdown measures would likely increase with an uptick in cases during the upcoming winter, it’s important to realize it’s starting from a lower base than the same time last year. 

Concern about variants themselves largely follows how protected a country’s population is. In European countries, where around two-thirds are fully vaccinated, concern is lower than India, Brazil, the U.S., or Japan. 

The UK was only one country included in our multi-market research, but it acts as a useful barometer. The UK government recently published its fall and winter plan for dealing with COVID, and even its “plan B” contingency foregoes new lockdown measures in favor of increased risk communication, mandatory vaccine certification, and face coverings. It does recognize, however, there could be mitigating circumstances (a new variant, or severe pressure on the health system) that may require further interventions. 

Should winter restrictions be introduced, mask-wearing and some level of social distancing should be widely accepted, but more stringent restrictions will be a harder sell than they have been before. 

Few are aware of the benefits of ventilation. 

If we stick with the UK as a test-case for COVID outcomes, the last few months show how many uncertainties there are in transitioning from pandemic to endemic. 

On the 19th of July, the UK government moved to step four of its roadmap. In practical terms, this meant rolling back pretty much all legal restrictions on people’s lives. So no more mandated social distancing, venue capacities, or mask-wearing. Since then, case numbers have remained consistent, with the R number hovering around 1 – to the bafflement of many scientists.

It makes the upcoming winter season very hard to predict, but certain factors can be considered probable. 

Winter is traditionally the most difficult time of year for health services, and this is likely to be exacerbated by the return of the flu season – virtually non-existent last year – and the backlog of elective care. 

Schools and offices will have reopened. People will spend more time indoors, making transmission more likely. And while vaccines have weakened the link between cases and hospitalisations or deaths, there could still be enough cases among the unvaccinated and the minority for whom vaccines don’t work (as, while they are extremely effective, they are not 100% effective) to increase the pressure on health systems.

At the very least this makes public health messaging through winter very likely. But after 18 months of coronavirus, what sort of measures do people believe is important in preventing transmission? 

As you might guess from its popularity as an intervention, mask-wearing is seen as the most effective (63%), above even vaccination (62%). 

What’s surprising is how few people believe ventilation or staying outdoors are one of the top three most effective measures. This is true even of a country like Japan, which has been held as a model for other countries in its recognition of the “three Cs” of epidemics (closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings).

One of the biggest stories of the pandemic has been the slow change in recognizing that the bulk of transmission comes from airborne droplets, not through surfaces. 

To put it simply, in many cases opening a window will keep you safer than washing your hands.

It’s telling that the UK government’s fall and winter plan talks about ventilation and outdoor socialization much more than previous guidance has. 

The problem is that initial messaging during the acute stage of the pandemic, when concern was at its highest and people were effectively in crisis mode, has really stuck. Most are unaware of the benefits of ventilation, and creating free flow of air is unlikely to be in many people’s or businesses’ regular habits. Any messaging campaigns have to recognize this obstacle. 

The Delta variant is taking hold in APAC.

So far we’ve looked at COVID-19 through a Western lens, thinking about the possible implications for the winter season in those countries.

But more than ever, countries are at different stages in dealing with COVID-19, and our global research allows us to get a measure on the public mood across the world.

If we use that 19th of July date (when the UK government lifted effectively all restrictions) as a benchmark, then the countries in our research with the biggest increases in cumulative cases per million since are almost all in APAC (Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and New Zealand).

Our research allows us to track one of the most important knock-on effects of COVID: consumer confidence. 

We ask respondents in the region how they think their personal finances will change over the next 6 months, and the change in the number who think it will get better or worse is a useful predictor of future spending patterns. 

Consider the chart above and the story it tells. 

Europe’s consumer confidence crashes in Q2 2020 as countries struggle to control the virus. APAC’s does too, but its interventions produce more success more quickly, so confidence is quicker to recover. The two regions then diverge; Europe experiences another downturn, struck by second waves of the virus, while for the most part APAC countries continue to keep the virus at low levels.

As of Q2 2021, for the first time in the pandemic, the two have swapped. Europe, with its high rates of vaccination, has renewed optimism. In APAC, where vaccination rates are lower and lockdowns have had to be reintroduced, confidence is decreasing again. 

The lockdown mindset in APAC is similar to Europe’s.

More APAC countries are now experiencing the kind of extended stay-at-home orders that defined much of the West’s experience of 2020. 

Which begs the question; how are lockdown habits and behaviors different this time around, if they are at all?

Our most recent quarter of Core research shows that APAC lockdowns have sparked a new interest in fitness and exercise, rising by 8%. Whether through putting on running shoes for the first time, or just adopting a different perspective on health, being at home tends to drive people to at least think about exercise more. This increased interest translates into greater usage of apps like Strava, Fitbit, Nike Run Club, and more participation in (virtual) fitness classes. 

We also see growth for life’s slower pleasures. This means an increase in interest for books (+6%) and board games (+5%), as well as immersive audio. Time spent listening to podcasts has jumped significantly, and there’s a big spike in the number using audio-based apps like Audible (+28%) and Calm (+16%). 

There’s also been important changes to social media behavior. Not so much in the number of new users joining platforms, but in the frequency they’re used. Most platforms have seen leaps in the number using them more than once per day. 

All of these are very similar to the kind of changes we saw in countries with extensive restrictions last year in Europe and North America. 

While there may be the odd differences here and there, the lockdown experience seems to have a fairly universal response among consumers. Regardless of where you are in the world, you tend to occupy your time in very similar ways.

What to watch for in the next 3 months

Agencies working on public health messaging during the Northern Hemisphere winter have to be aware that confidence in ventilation is low, and most people continue to think about hands and surfaces as the main way to curtail transmission. There’s still a lot of work to do in changing that mindset. 

In the event that mandated restrictions are introduced, people will likely welcome mask-wearing, but anything beyond that will find a less receptive audience.

For businesses operating in APAC, or for anyone who wants to keep abreast of the situation there, we’re seeing more signs of a lockdown mindset strikingly similar to what we saw in the West last year. Many of the lessons from there apply this time around, meaning consumers are receptive to fitness and activity-based distractions, and are in the right mood to embrace slower, and perhaps more escapist, forms of media. 

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NB: Figures for the APAC region in this blog exclude China, for a few reasons. Firstly, China is yet to experience the same proportional impact of new Delta cases as the rest of the region, meaning the impact in our data is not as profound as it is in other APAC countries. Due to the size of the country’s population, this means excluding China data in order not to obscure the trend happening in most other countries. In addition, the country’s online ecosystem is served by different apps, which makes it harder to draw like-for-like comparisons where online behavior is concerned.

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