In March 2020, The Harris Poll kicked off a “COVID-19 Tracker” and began a weekly survey of the U.S. public around many questions swirling in their minds, as well as those in government, business, and the media. The Center on Global Brand Leadership was pleased to host John Gerzema, the company’s CEO and friend of the Center, to share their data and insights around “The Four I’s,” that he noted as top of mind during pandemic and at the moment on January 14, 2021 – the long running issues of infection and injustice along with the latest crisis in the U.S. on insurrection and impeachment.
Gerzema began with trend data around COVID-19 noting the “curtain of fear” that dropped over the course of 2020. Less than half the public felt a fear of the coronavirus was rational in mid-March, but now nearly three-quarters now think fearing it is sensible. The cornerstone of that fear is around both fearing of dying from the virus (57%) and fears around its effect on the economy (55%).
With the approval of vaccines, the hope is that some of this fear might dissipate, but trust in the vaccines is far from universal. Gerzema shared trend data which showed that the public’s commitment at the start of the pandemic to take a vaccine as soon as it became available was strong (73%), but then trended down significantly by September (54%) as former President Trump was directly pushing for a faster vaccine approval process, before trending upward again to 68% in their January 10 survey. The main demographic difference was among the US Black population, which has a historic distrust of the public health system, with only 55% intending to take the vaccine.
The reason behind these hesitations are primarily around side effects (55%), rushed development (43%), efficacy (36%), and safety (30%). “We criticize or demonize this small group that aren’t going to take it,” said Gerzema, “when in fact they have very rational and practical concerns that need to be addressed by health professionals and our leadership.”
In noting that trust in the vaccines is a dynamic and moving needle, Gerzema stated, “This should maybe be the fifth ‘I’ – information.” There is a sort of “herd perception” effect, with people stating that seeing someone they know get the vaccine makes them more comfortable (66%). However, counter information is also having an effect, with half the public reporting that the new COVID-19 strains are causing them to rethink a commit to take the current vaccines, and hearing skepticism from others decreases their trust in the safety of the vaccine (47%). “This points to [the need for] targeting by various demographics; there is a lot of custom messaging. A lot of it also revolves around people in your family and your close circle of friends taking the vaccine and feeling safe to create confidence,” said Gerzema.
In terms of when elements of pre-pandemic life will return, their latest polling data show that two-thirds of the public expects two core aspects of “normalcy” – going to the office and dining in a restaurant – will be something they will return to within six months, with longer timeline expectations for activities with a wider social circle. “What has happened in terms of the optimal ways people would like to work moving forward,” highlighted Gerzema, “is three days home and two days in the office.”
“Clearly there is a mental health crisis in America,” Gerzema stated in reflecting on the toll the pandemic is taking. Their data shows strong majorities reporting increased stress due to the coronavirus (78%) and concern about the future of the nation (83%). “Most notably – and sad – is that younger people are reporting a high degree of increased stress. But most fascinatingly, they are also about 15 points higher on believing that mental health and wellness should be destigmatized and that we should be talking in an open and honest way about our mental health.”
Insurrection and Impeachment
The Harris Poll data Gerzema shared, sadly, dovetails with other polls showing a deep mistrust that the public has of all kinds of institutions in the US, with a majority of Americans distrusting social media (69%), Congress (56%), the President (on 1/10/21) (55%), national media (52%), and other institutions (justice system, voting by mail, American democracy, federal agencies, etc.).
On top of this, a majority of Americans believe that everything from the rioters to former President Trump to social media and the national media to Antifa and the DNC were responsible for the actions at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
“As we look forward, in terms of the Biden Administration, there is a lot of confidence in handling COVID, with nearly two-thirds of Americans thinking they will do a good job,” noted Gerzema, with smaller majorities showing confidence in how they will handle the economy and racial inequality. A majority of the public is also at least somewhat hopeful the Biden Administration will be able to help heal the cultural divides in America, but not surprisingly, this differs across the political spectrum with 36% of Republicans hopeful, 83% of Democrats hopeful, and 54% of Independents hopeful.
In terms of the racial lens, Gerzema noted that there is still a lot to unpack. “In our data, we’ve seen that white Americans are both for Black Lives Matter and not defunding the police.” But, noted Gerzema, “The chasm that exists in America is about the lived experience,” with nearly 40 point spreads between how white Americans rate the police in not using excessive force and treating people fairly.
“After the tragic shooting of George Floyd this summer, I ran back and looked at a 2014 Harris Poll after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.” Gerzema saw major changes in the gaps in how white Americans view many of the issues around discrimination and systemic racism. There are still very import perception differences from these lived experiences, but the gaps have shrunk in many cases.
“The three things that have stayed highest as we’ve been tracking emotions across the course of the pandemic have been ‘appreciative,’ ‘thankful,’ and ‘compassionate,’” stated Gerzema as an element of optimism.
And the data are also showing that some expectations and behavior changes created in the pandemic are likely to continue. Gerzema shared data around small changes, like the greater use of contactless payments in the future (79%), to a greater appreciation of the outdoors (69%), to possible changes in the norms of our everyday behavior, with 54% of respondents in a recent poll agreeing, “I would be happy to never shake someone’s hand again.”
Finally, Gerzema noted that most of the public (85%) do miss shopping in person, but they have adapted to using digital sources of information more frequently to evaluate the products they are considering buying.
“Our data shows a lot of emphasis on reconnecting with friends and family, for both celebration and even mourning,” stated Gerzema, “so for brands to be the catalysts of these connections and emotions will be a power differentiator moving forward.”