One year on: how has the pandemic affected personal lives?

Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
November 23, 2021, 3:05 PM GMT+0

New findings from the annual YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project demonstrate the varied impact of the pandemic on levels of wellbeing around the world.

In particular, it seems that people in northern Europe and the Anglophone West have endured a much less gloomy experience of the prolonged crisis, compared with other parts of the European continent and beyond.

In a batch of developed economies, for example, only small portions said the pandemic had been bad for their personal finances, including France (27%), Germany (24%), Sweden (15%), Denmark (11%), Britain (22%), Australia (29%) and the United States (27%). By contrast, consistently larger numbers said the same in Spain (40%), Italy (43%), Greece (50%), Hungary (46%) and Poland (38%), and higher still in countries including Brazil (54%), Thailand (68%), Kenya (75%), Nigeria (63%) and South Africa (59%). A similar pattern was evident among those saying the pandemic had caused them to worry more about money, such as 70% or over in Greece, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Thailand, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, compared with just a third or under in Britain (31%), Sweden (24%) and Denmark (15%).

Other aspects of life tell a similar story. People in Spain (44%), Italy (47%) and Greece (58%) were more likely to say the pandemic had taken a negative toll on their mental health, with similar rends in Brazil (46%), Japan (45%) and Thailand (61%). Interestingly, however, the lowest numbers who reported this effect were also beyond the West, namely in China (16%), Egypt (16%) and Saudi Arabia (14%).

People in the Mediterranean countries were again more likely than others to say the pandemic had blighted their plans for the future, with 41% in Spain, 50% in Italy and 61% in Greece. The respective figures for Turkey (51%), Thailand (57%), Kenya (60%) and South Africa (51%) were also notably high in this area.

It wasn’t all bad news for some of these countries, however, as substantial numbers in several places also felt the pandemic had been good for their family life, including Brazil (45%), Mexico (41%), Egypt (46%), Saudi Arabia (62%), India (54%), Indonesia (44%), Kenya (45%), Nigeria (52%) and South Africa (44%). Tellingly, there were no populations throughout the study with large numbers saying the opposite – that the pandemic had been bad for family life.

It also seems that public optimism is in greater supply beyond the West, somewhat regardless of pandemic experience. In numerous cases across mainland Europe, only around a third or under tended to describe themselves as currently feeling optimistic about their personal future, from France (29%) and Germany (34%) to Spain (34%) Italy (27%), Greece (24%), Hungry (34%), and Poland (32%). The four anglophone countries looked slightly more upbeat, including Britain (42%), Australia (45%), the US (43%) and Canada (44%). By contrast, numerous other publics reported much higher levels of optimism, including Brazil (63%), Mexico (57%), Egypt (55%), Saudi Arabia (70%), India (61%), Indonesia (73%), Kenya (81%), Nigeria (88%) and South Africa (63%)

Comparing people’s experience by demography instead of nationality also reveals the unequal effect of events over the past year or more. Throughout numerous countries, younger people are consistently more likely than their elders to feel the pandemic has been bad for money worries and mental health. In France, nearly half (47%) of those aged 18-24 say the pandemic has taken a negative toll on their mental health, compared with just a quarter (25%) of people who are 55 or older. Other countries show similar differences, such as Germany (38% versus 22%), Sweden (42%, 19%), Denmark (35%, 17%), Spain (51%, 39%), Italy (59%, 39%), Hungary (43%, 27%), Britain (50%, 25%), Australia (51%, 28%), Canada (40%, 29%), Mexico (41%, 18%), Turkey (44%, 25%), Egypt (22%, 5%) and Indonesia (34%, 17%). Comparable versions of this tend can be seen in many cases regarding money worries.

Across several measures, moreover, we find that women are repeatedly more likely than men to report a negative impact from the pandemic, including that of money worries, personal finances, mental health and levels of work stress. Among working people in Britain, for instance, 36% of men say their professional life has become more stressful since the pandemic started, compared with 55% of women. In Denmark and Spain, the respective splits are 19% to 28% and 42% to 60%.

The same survey also indicates that for most people, the pandemic has hardly transformed their approach to lifestyle or life choices. For one thing, it seems that public appetite for the work-from-home revolution should not be exaggerated. People were asked what their preferred working situation would be after the pandemic, if they were able to choose. Among employed respondents in roles where home-working is feasible, by far the larger portion in most countries in the study would ideally choose to work from home just some of the time or even not at all, rather than either “most of the time” or the “the whole time”. In other words, most people don’t want a work-from-home ‘revolution’ – they merely want a ‘modification’ instead.

Neither has the pandemic spurred many of us to make radical changes to things such as career path, love life or location. Respondents were asked if their experience of the pandemic had encouraged them either to make various adjustments to life – or at least to consider seriously doing so – including moving to a different area of the country, moving to a different country altogether, changing career or separating from a partner or spouse. For all the talk in the early stages of the crisis about the end of normality as we knew it, what is striking about these results is how such a consistently small percentage around the world reported that their experience of the pandemic had made them do or even consider these sorts of changes. In a majority of cases, the figures are in single digits or barely larger, such as 10% or under who had decided to move to a different part of the country in France (7%), Germany (7%), Sweden (7%), Denmark (4%), Italy (8%), Greece (10%), Hungary (5%), Poland (6%), Britain (4%), Australia (8%), the US (9%) and Canada (7%).

Interestingly, the figures for each type of change tended to higher in the non-Western world, such as around one in five who had changed career as a result of Coronavirus in South Africa (21%), Kenya (20%), Thailand (19%), Saudi Arabia (22%), Egypt (21%) and Brazil (22%). Nonetheless, majorities in most cases said the pandemic “hasn’t made me do or seriously consider this”.

By a similar token, other metrics in the survey paint an undramatic picture of most people largely carrying on with life in a manner not altogether transformed. When asked, for example, if they now tend to do more or less of various things in life compared with beforehand, most of us tend to report no overall change in areas including sleep, physical exercise, drinking or eating healthily.

We also find something of a mixed bag for the effect of the pandemic on personal relationships. Broadly speaking, people tend to say that Covid has had a somewhat better effect on relationships with close family and partners than that of friends, colleagues or neighbours. Only tiny minorities around the world tend to report that the pandemic has made their relationships “less close” with partners or offspring. The respective figure tends to be slightly higher for that of work colleagues but considerably higher still in several countries for those saying the experience has damaged friendships, including nearly half or more in Sweden (55%), Greece (49%), Brazil (47%), Turkey (49%), Thailand (61%) and Kenya (55%).

Results:

Covid impact on personal lives

Covid impact by age and gender

Attitudes to working from home

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For more about the Globalism Project, see here.

Image: Getty

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The YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research is a joint research centre run by YouGov and the Cambridge University POLIS Department, which promotes in-depth collaboration between pollsters and academic experts. Alongside research and events, the Centre contributes to teaching at the University and provides several postgraduate scholarships each year.
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