Global COVID study: Handwashing and mask-wearing still widespread but WFH and home-isolation declining
Last year, YouGov and Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation launched a survey in 29 countries, areas, and territories across the globe to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Running on a weekly/bi-weekly basis since April 2020, the survey – designed in collaboration with a group of clinical and technical experts – has delivered regular data to policy-makers and clinicians about attitudes and behaviours over the course of the crisis so far.
In this article, we focus on the data we’ve collected around the pandemic and behaviour change, examining how the global public have approached preventive measures such as handwashing, face mask usage, and working from home – as well as how opinion has shifted over time.
Most of the global public continue to wash their hands frequently
Washing hands thoroughly and frequently was among the first guidance issued during the early stages of the pandemic, and it remains the preventive measure people are most likely to adhere to. In the UK, the US, and many other countries, public information campaigns focused heavily on washing with soap and water for 20 seconds in order to reduce transmission of the virus.
Judging from the data, the global public appear to have got the message.
YouGov and ICL’s research shows that the overwhelming majority said they washed their hands with soap and water “Always” or “Frequently” in April 2020 – and that this remained true a year later, with 80% of the global public across all countries keeping up this habit in April 2021.
. There is evidence of a slight decline in the practice across many countries – most notably in the Netherlands, where the proportion who said they wash hands Always or Frequently fell from 89% to 85% between April 2020 and February 2021 - but overall, more than four in five members of the public say they are regularly sanitising their hands.
As of April 2021, handwashing frequency is highest in Italy, Spain, and Canada (95%) and lowest in Japan (84%).
Face mask usage has increased
While face masks have become a contentious subject in the media in some countries, our data shows that objections to them remain a minority concern across the globe. Across all countries, areas, and territories in our study, more than seven in ten reported wearing face masks “Always” or “Frequently” in April 2021 – except in Australia (42%) and Sweden (36%). That’s a big increase on results from a year ago, when wearing a face mask was, in many countries, a minority pursuit.
Sweden is an outlier among the countries in our study and among its fellow Nordic countries, which were among the lowest in terms of face mask use in April 2020 (Sweden: 6%; Denmark: 6%; Norway: 10%) – but which have since seen usage rise to 80% and 74% in Denmark and Norway respectively. This may reflect Sweden’s idiosyncratic approach to the crisis, which saw it eschew lockdowns and other restrictions until 2021 and where wearing a mask has in some quarters “become a signifier of being anti-science”.
On the whole, however, most people are regularly using face masks. In Korea, Japan, Spain, and Singapore, 97% of consumers wear them “Always” or “Frequently”. What’s more, they’re not just doing it out of obligation. In May 2020, over 80% of all respondents across the countries in our study said they felt proud, better protected, and like they were setting a good example when they donned a face mask.
More people are going out, fewer are working from home
At the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 made people in most countries less likely to leave the house.
The survey shows that the proportion of people who said they always or frequently avoid leaving home fell in all countries. Australia has seen the sharpest decline: while four in five (80%) said they were more likely to stay indoors to avoid spreading the disease, this fell to just one in three (33%) by April 2021. As of April 2021, South Korea remains the country in our study where people are most likely to say they still avoid going out (75%).
The data also shows how many more people have returned to their workplace in April 2021. In every country except Japan, the proportion of respondents who said they were working from home was lower in April 2021 than April 2020.
In the UK (49%), Canada (49%), and Japan (47%), approaching half of the public say they avoid working outside the home to protect themselves or others from the effects of COVID-19. In Australia, this is as low as three in ten members of the public (29%). While there has been speculation that COVID-19 might presage a more permanent move towards working from home, more people are returning to their workplace – whether it’s because their jobs aren’t compatible with long-term working from home, their employers don’t embrace the practice, or they simply prefer it.
In terms of preventive behaviours, the study paints a picture of an evolving crisis: one where people are still wearing masks, washing hands, and exercising a degree of caution – but also one where they feel more comfortable leaving the house and returning to work than they did a year ago.