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It’s unclear how, when all’s said and done, we’ll look back on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some believe that, unlike other moments in history, there’s no single event that provides people with a “flashbulb” memory – the proverbial “where were you when” moment – whereas some research has suggested this was indeed the case when stay-at-home orders were first introduced. 

What’s becoming clear, though, is that March 2020 has become a cultural ground zero of the pandemic, when a succession of announcements and drastic changes around the world signaled that life was changing dramatically. The number of “one year on” retrospectives in March 2021 is proof enough of that. 

This is despite the fact that new variants of the virus have emerged, and subsequent waves have occurred that, in many cases, have been even deadlier than the first. 

It’s a story also borne out in our research, where we’ve found that concern about the pandemic, in any country, has rarely eclipsed the level it reached in March-April 2020.  

In this blog, we’ve brought together findings from the UK and India, when they experienced subsequent peaks in cases, to identify lessons about how people’s thinking changes during the second COVID-19 waves.

With the Delta variant spreading around the world (and visiting countries which remained relatively untouched up to this point), these insights are particularly relevant. 

Concern doesn’t follow cases.

The big news is this: even though their second waves were deadlier than their first, in both the UK and India, concern about COVID-19 was lower than its peak at the beginning of the pandemic. 

It should be stressed that case numbers from the first wave in the UK are widely considered to be higher than reported, due to a lack of testing capacity at the time. But it’s still telling that concern was lower during the second wave, when we know that fatalities were higher than the first. 

In India, concern about the pandemic was lower in June 2021 than it was even in December 2020, when cases were much reduced.

While our research was conducted when India was seeing a drop in cases from the peak of its second wave, we launched our equivalent study in the UK when cases were rising, and found the same story. Concern about the virus was lower than it was even in the summer of 2020, when the first set of restrictions were beginning to ease. 

Our methodology means we survey internet users, which in India’s case means a more affluent sample of the population that can afford internet access. This arguably means we’re looking at a group of people more insulated from the pandemic’s worst effects.

But this couldn’t be said of the UK, where internet access is near-universal. The important takeaway is that both countries show a common trend. 

2020 remains the emotional high point.

The story of people’s attitudes to COVID is one of a gradual decline in concern from an initial adrenaline surge in 2020. This doesn’t mean concern is low overall – 3 in 4 in India were very or extremely concerned during its second wave. But the overall trend is downward. 

There are some possible reasons why. The big one is likely to be knowing that vaccines are available, or even that people have been vaccinated themselves. Similarly, some people may feel less threatened by a virus that poses a low risk to their demographic, whereas in 2020 the full implications were less clear.

Nonetheless the Delta variant – at the heart of India’s recent wave – is another game-changer.

It looks likely that many countries around the world, including places like Australia and South Korea, which had previously managed to keep case numbers down, will see new waves driven by Delta. 

Those countries should be aware that increases in case numbers are unlikely to automatically create more concern in the population. Again, that’s not to say that no-one is concerned, just that nothing matches the sense of existential threat that loomed large last year. 

Are any particular groups responsible for this drop?

Not really – in fact, it’s fairly universal. If we look at India in more detail, concern has lowered in every age group, though the smallest decrease was in the 55-64s. This would suggest concern in the most vulnerable groups remains relatively stable. 

Another important lesson from India is that many people there expected a second wave – in July 2020, 73% were very or extremely concerned about that possibility. The sheer scale of it may have come as a shock, but not the fact it happened. 

The bottom line at this point is that concerns about COVID are a matter of degree – how much a wave may peak – whereas a year ago it was more black and white, focussed on moving from a pre-pandemic world into a post-pandemic one. The latter resonated with people much more powerfully. 

Government approval decreased during India’s second wave.

If India is any example, approval of the government response and of other members of the population have both decreased sharply in the second wave compared to the first. This points to another difficulty with subsequent waves – it’s harder to achieve buy-in for collective action with those feelings diminished. 

Concern about the virus may have been lower during India’s second wave, but the impacts have been deeper. More people have been laid off or furloughed, expect a big impact on their finances, or have seen their travel plans curtailed. A third said they’d seen a big/dramatic impact on their access to basic utilities. 

Countries fighting new Delta waves must recognize changed circumstances. 

In many countries, the story of the COVID-19 pandemic is one of an initial burst of confusion and concern in March-April 2020 as the virus first made its way around the world, which then stabilized as day-to-day life continued in some form or another. 

What may be more surprising is levels of concern have fairly consistently stayed at this level, and even declined slightly as subsequent waves rise and fall.

This should be borne in mind if, as looks likely, more countries will experience subsequent waves driven by Delta – even if their management of new cases so far has been good.

Some countries may have a different experience, particularly those who experienced SARS in the early millennium, but it’s unlikely any will be able to recapture the same sense of cohesion and concern that marked March-April 2020, at least not without the right communication and messaging.

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