COMMENTARY: Spread of coronavirus casts shadow over Canada’s public mood

“What was over there is now over here” is a good way to sum up how Canadians are feeling about the new coronavirus.

A month ago, what was seen by most as exclusively an issue for China is being increasingly seen as a threat to Canada. Over the last two weeks, Ipsos polling has shown that concern about COVID-19 becoming a threat to Canada has risen from 15 per cent to 21 per cent.

We’ve also seen similar movements in feelings about domestic threat in the nine other countries where Ipsos has surveyed on this issue.

While Canadians have growing concern about the potential impact of COVID-19 on the country, this hasn’t translated into concern about an impact on their own personal health — at least not yet. Only eight per cent of Canadians see COVID-19 as a personal health threat.

That’s the lowest level of reported concern in the 10 countries we surveyed.

So if we don’t think COVID-19 represents an immediate threat to our personal health, what do we find so threatening about it?

It turns out it’s the threat to our wallets. That’s where we’ve seen the biggest movement in Canadian public opinion over the last two weeks. Concern about personal financial threat has moved up by 20 points to 37 per cent over the past two weeks. This is the biggest move registered for any of the questions we asked.

Why money and not health? One clue could be how Canadians believe the virus is spreading.

Most of us (67 per cent) believe it’s our inability to forecast the spread of the disease, as opposed to ineffective preventative countermeasures, that has moved the virus around the globe. Fixing ineffective countermeasures is something the average person can get their head around. Predicting the unpredictable? That’s a problem of another magnitude and especially worrisome. We have certainly seen it with the economy.

The effect of COVID-19 on the economy has been swift and undeniable, hitting us like a violent lightning storm. Sure, many voices warned we were in for some heavy weather, but the global economy rolled on for a month with little reaction. Then, in a flash, we were rocked. The Dow Jones experienced its worst decline since the financial crisis of 2008.

Unpredictability and big impacts have a way of catching the public’s attention. Add in the reactions of central banks and warnings from important businesses and you get the 20-point move we saw this week.

One question I’ve been asked more than any other about public opinion and COVID-19 is how big a crisis it represents. In my 30 years of interviewing Canadians, I can only remember three other events that rocked the public mood like this. Top of the list: 9/11. The impact was immediate and enormous, both in Canada and around the world.

The second was the financial crisis of 2008. While it had less of an impact on Canadian public opinion than what we saw in other countries, it was still significant.

The third was the Quebec referendum of 1995. This was a domestic issue only but still had a significant impact on the mood of Canadians.

Where does COVID-19 rank as a crisis? It’s early days, but I could be adding another to my list. It’s that big.

Darrell Bricker is Global CEO, Ipsos Public Affairs.

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