As the magnitude and ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to sink-in across the country and around the world, Hill+Knowlton Strategies (H+K) surveyed Canadians over the weekend, March 13 to 16, 2020. We wanted to understand what Canadians know about the virus and how they are reacting to the crisis. We also wanted to know how people thought they, their loved ones, the economy, and global stability would be impacted.

Highlights of the survey are discussed below. It is important to bear in mind that developments surrounding the virus, particularly with respect to how governments are reacting, are moving exceptionally quickly. For this reason, we will be surveying Canadians at regular intervals over the course of the crisis.

Overall, we find that Canadians are very worried, not so much about their personal health, but about potential impacts on loved ones, the economy and international stability. Canadians also expect the situation to worsen before it gets better. Most feel they have a good understanding of what they should be doing to protect themselves and others – this self-assessment was corroborated by a knowledge test included in the survey. In addition to educating themselves about COVID-19, the vast majority of Canadians have taken some concrete steps to stem the spread of the disease.

Taken together, the results show that Canadians are very and increasingly pessimistic about the impact COVID-19 will have on society as a whole – at least in the short-to-medium term.

Communication during this time is key. According to our survey, Canadians are relying mainly on traditional media to get information, along with governments. We also find that their trust in these two sources on the issues of COVID-19 is relatively high.

A truly global crisis with very wide ramifications

While it may not be surprising to see that our survey finds that 100% of respondents are aware of COVID-19, it is the first time in our over 20 years of surveying Canadians that an issue has reached this ultimate level of societal penetration.

Even before official talks of a Canada-U.S. border closure and the announcements of massive financial aid packages for individuals and businesses in the U.S. and Canada, the survey shows that Canadians were very concerned about the potential for massive economic and geopolitical instability wrought by COVID-19:

  • 70% believe the world is already in “disarray” because of it.
  • 51% agree that if COVID-19 isn’t brought under control soon, the economy will be “destroyed.”
  • In terms of solutions, most (59%) Canadians support closing the country’s borders.

The situation is bad and it’s getting worse 

Over the weekend while the survey was in-field, about 7 in 10 Canadians believe COVID-19 is spreading and “getting worse.” In terms of how long they expect the crisis to continue, 75% are bracing themselves months, or more, of disruption.

Most Canadians think they will avoid getting COVID-19

Despite well-publicized expert estimates of a 30% to 70% infection rate for countries like Canada, only 14% of Canadians think they will contract the virus. It is not clear whether people don’t believe they will be infected because they are taking all the recommended precautions, that they haven’t traveled recently, or simply they don’t believe it could happen to them. Whatever the reason, and by way of contrast, half (47%) are worried that friends and family with by stricken by COVID-19.

Public health messages appear to be getting through, but complying with health measures still sinking-in

Canadians know the symptoms of COVID-19: 93% identify fever; 85% point to difficulty in breathing; and 74% identify shortness of breath.

Canadians are also becoming quite familiar with COVID-19’s grim lexicon. Majorities say they have a good understanding of the concepts of self-monitoring (62% say so based on a definition provided in the survey), self-isolation (72%), social distancing (70%), and quarantine (68%).

Consistent with their beliefs about contracting the virus themselves, we see that as of last weekend, relatively few respondents thought they would have to engage, or be subject to, the four measures identified above. Most telling is that only 32% expected to have to practice social distancing, while 12% expect to live in self-isolation for some time.

In terms of actual behaviour change, almost everyone (89%) are washing their hands more often. About two-thirds are going out less and avoiding public spaces and events, while almost half (44%) had stayed home from work or worked remotely and (43%) have purchased extra food as a result of COVID-19.

Likelihood of compliance with public health measures appears high, but by no means universal, especially among younger people

As the reality of COVID-19 sets in, 8 in 10 Canadians (80%) say that if they contract it they will immediately self-isolate for two weeks. Yet, expected compliance is significantly lower (66%) among those 18 to 24 years of age.

It appears that when the chips are down, Canadians trust traditional media and governments to provide them with information

The survey reveals that the most trusted sources of information on COVID-19 are health professionals, such as physicians and nurses (trusted by 75%). Relatively few people, however, have obtained information directly from this source (only 15%). Instead, most have relied on traditional media and government. While these sources are not quite as trusted as health professionals, the survey shows that traditional media and government are trusted by most (68% trust government and 56% traditional media). These figures are also significantly higher than what we typically see on survey questions pertaining to trust in institutions and sources of information.

Bottom-Line: Some cause for some optimism amid the crisis   

Our survey suggests that Canadians are well-aware of – and very concerned about – the serious impacts that COVID-19 could have on their health, the economy, and global stability. They are seeking information from multiple sources and understanding what measures need to be taken now and in the future. While it is still difficult for people to imagine having to live in isolation, let alone under quarantine, the reality of COVID-19 appears to be sinking in.

As events continue to unfold at breakneck speed, one can probably take some comfort in the fact that many Canadians appear to be renewing their faith in traditional media and government, at least when it comes to matters of life and death – and that the messages those institutions are conveying are being absorbed by those who need to hear them most

About the Study

Source: Hill+Knowlton Strategies (H+K).

H+K researchers collected the data in partnership with Leger Opinion (LEO), an online panel. Results based on n=992 Canadians surveyed over the period of March 13 to 16, 2020. Sampling was done within age, gender, and region quotas. Length of survey was less than 15 minutes. Data was weighted on age, gender, and region according to 2016 census figures. An associated margin of error for a randomly selected sample of n=992 would be ±3%, 19 times out of 20.