Western public wary of many countries’ COVID figures

Matthew SmithLead data journalist
August 24, 2020, 10:02 AM UTC

People in Europe and the United States are sceptical of the official numbers in China, Russia, US and Brazil

China’s unfortunate status as the origin of the coronavirus outbreak seems to have cemented an idea in the minds of people in the West that the country has been ravaged by the disease, the results of new YouGov surveys in Europe and the US show.

Compared to many other countries, China has not seen that many cases, especially when accounting for the size of its population. As of 6 August only 88,000 cases had been recorded in the country, compared to 4.82 million in the US, 2.86 million in Brazil, 1.96 million in India and 307,000 in the UK.

For this research into people’s perceptions about which countries have been hit hardest by the pandemic, YouGov showed respondents a list of 18 countries. We asked them to choose the four nations from this list that they thought had been worst affected by the coronavirus. Over the course of the survey fieldwork 11 of the other nations listed (12 for the countries with more recent fieldwork) had officially suffered more cases and greater numbers of deaths than China. Therefore, no-one answering should have picked China as part of their top four list.

However, in the European nations surveyed, between 26% and 39% included China in their top four. In the US this figure shot up to fully 85%, with 28% saying they thought it was the single worst affected country.

While the official figures during the course of the study fieldwork show China was between 23rd-28th in terms of total cases to date and between 22nd-26th in terms of total deaths, the public in the West view the situation differently. Ranking by the number of people including China in their top four worst affected, across the eight countries surveyed China comes between third and sixth overall.

By contrast, the public’s perception is in line with the official figures when it come to the United States. The US has seen the greatest recorded number of positive cases and deaths and in every country surveyed it was the most likely to be cited as the worst hit by the virus.

Brazil, Italy and Spain are generally seen as being the next hardest hit nations. While the perception about Brazil broadly matches the declared numbers, they tend to slightly overestimate the relative impact on Italy and Spain.

There are high levels of scepticism about official figures for many countries

The public in the West doubt the official figures from many countries. In all eight of the countries we studied a majority of people believed China had consciously under-reported its coronavirus numbers. It is a similar picture when it comes to Russia, with 46-60% thinking it is under-reporting its tallies and Brazil’s numbers are similarly distrusted (25-51%). The data also shows there is scepticism about the figures reported by the USA (26-52%).

The Spanish are particularly likely to think countries are trying to make out that their coronavirus situations are better than they actually are. This includes Spain itself; 47% of Spanish people believe their own government is not being upfront about how many COVID-19 cases and deaths there have been. No other country studied reached this level of self-skepticism; this could be a result of the Spanish government’s public attempts to change the way coronavirus deaths data was being reported.

The French and British are also more likely to be suspicious of their own governments’ figures, but to a much lesser extent than Spain.

See the full results here