York research shows Canadians believe science, medical advice should rule COVID-19 decisions

Most Canadians believe scientific evidence (82 per cent) and advice from medical doctors (78 per cent) should be the key influences affecting government decisions for COVID-19, with only 48 per cent putting economic considerations among the top three, research led by York University has found.

But when asked to select up to three things they thought were actually influencing government decisions, economic considerations (56 per cent), scientific evidence (53 per cent) and advice from medical doctors (53 per cent) were all at the top.

Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy

“Canadians were in high agreement that medical and scientific evidence should be driving our response to the coronavirus, but saw a wider range of factors as currently influencing the direction,” says Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Assistant Professor Eric Kennedy, who is leading the project, which recently received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to track how Canadians understand and perceive the outbreak.

While Canadians put economics as the third consideration that should influence decisions, nearly half of those surveyed had experienced negative changes at work – including unpaid leave, reduced hours or being laid off entirely – and 27 per cent said they would have money issues if asked to self-isolate for 14 days. That included the inability to pay rent or bills, such as electricity, or afford groceries.

The Canadian COVID-19 Social Impacts Survey looked at risk perceptions, trust, impacts and responses across the country from March 20 to April 12, and received some 2,029 responses. The team includes York Associate Professor Claudia Chaufan of the Faculty of Health and Associate Professor Kieran O’Doherty of the University of Guelph. The team has also collaborated with other researchers across Canada, including Associate Professor Patrick Fafard at the University of Ottawa, to help track critical measures over the course of the outbreak.

“The report represents the first in a series of rapid dissemination efforts to share our findings with practitioners and decision-makers to support their response to this crisis,” says Kennedy. “Our survey is based on input and needs identified by public health practitioners and aims to support the long-term Canadian response.”

Another surprising finding is that compared to influenza, respondents were more concerned about the severity of COVID-19 and the likelihood of many Canadians being affected – but are less worried about personally getting sick. Some 85 per cent of respondents disagreed that “the coronavirus will not affect very many people in Canada,” while only two per cent agreed. When asked the same question about influenza on a 2019 survey, 20 per cent agreed. In other words, Canadians are highly concerned about COVID-19 with 94 per cent either agreeing or strongly agreeing that catching the virus can be serious, but only 23 per cent of Canadians believe they are likely to become sick with it.

“This is a counter-intuitive finding with important implications for public health agencies. Canadians are worried about the coronavirus in general, but there is a chance that their views of personal risk don’t align with their views of risks to others,” says Kennedy.

The researchers also found 80 to 84 per cent of Canadians support government interventions to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak, however, less than 60 per cent support mandatory coronavirus vaccinations when available. Broadly supported interventions include cancelling public events, closing places of worship, encouraging people to stay home, mandatory home isolation for potential exposure and closing schools.

“In general, this seems to suggest a relatively high degree of support for collective mitigation actions designed to help the hospitals maintain sufficient capacity,” says Kennedy. “Tracking these social dimensions over the long term is critical for informing policy as we attempt to flatten the curve for an extended period of time.”

The full report, Canadian COVID-19 Social Impacts Survey, is available on the CEMPPR Lab website.

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