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Global Public Opinion Shows Mixed Willingness to Take Vaccine

Running Numbers by Brendan Helm Craig Kafura Karl Friedhoff
Markus Spiske
vaccine syringe and bottle

Brendan Helm, Craig Kafura, and Karl Friedhoff analyze views on COVID vaccinations, finding Americans are divided on whether to be vaccinated despite increasing availability.

Review of Public Opinion in the United States, Japan, South Korea, Iran, France, and the United Kingdom

This week the world passed the 86.5 million case mark, with over 1.8 million deaths attributed to COVID-19. As vaccines are distributed across the world, the race to halt the pandemic has accelerated, though substantial challenges still remain in the form of production capacity and the logistics of providing two doses of the widely approved Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to as many people as possible. However, many countries do not have enough vaccines to inoculate every person, and some nations are considering mixing-and-matching vaccines, or halving the doses that are given to people.

The Council survey team is providing updates every other week on public opinion around the world on the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, the Chicago Council Survey team's update includes polling results from the United States, Japan, South Korea, Iran, France, and the United Kingdom. 

Key findings

  • Half of Americans (54%) say they plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available to them.
  • Two-thirds of Japanese (66%) favor a nationwide state of emergency declaration.
  • Although 74 percent of Iranians say that the economic situation is bad, a majority believe that the government should limit economic activities in order to contain the virus (57%).
  • In France, authorities fear a post-holiday surge of cases as a third of French people (34%) say they will leave their home to celebrate Christmas and three in ten (29%) say they will celebrate with 7 or more people.
  • The United Kingdom began their third national lockdown on Tuesday, January 5 as a new, more transmissible variant of COVID-19 spread through the nation. Though a majority of Britons support mask wearing in all public spaces (72%), half believe that Boris Johnson has done a bad job dealing with the virus.

United States - 21.1+ million cases, 357,394 deaths

With the pandemic still raging across the country, the public's focus remains on the disease. According to NPR/Ipsos polling in late December, half of the public (53%) names it as the topic they find most worrying, more than double the second-place item of healthcare (25%). As a result, majorities of the public back efforts to rein in the pandemic. Most Americans (74%) say that masks are an effective tool in preventing the spread of the disease, and two-thirds (64%) favor a law in their state mandating mask-wearing in public. Additionally, two-thirds (66%) disagree with the statement that COVID-19 restrictions in their community are too strict.

In addition to masks and social distancing, the arrival of vaccines has provided another arrow in the health policy quiver. Thus far, 4.7 million Americans have received a vaccine dose (mostly the first of two shots, though second-shot vaccinations are beginning this week). The early doses have been restricted to healthcare workers and others directly exposed to COVID-19 on a regular basis. But soon, they will be more widely available as the US seeks to vaccinate a sufficient proportion of the population to reach herd immunity. The success of that coming vaccination campaign will depend on public reception.

According to NPR/Ipsos polling, half of Americans (54%) say they will take the vaccine as soon as it is available to them. While Democrats (65%) are somewhat more likely to seek a vaccine than Republicans (49%), the real division is by news consumption rather than partisanship. A majority of Fox News viewers (59%), but only 29 percent of conservative online news consumers (such as Breitbart, the Daily Caller, or Instapundit), plan to get vaccinated as soon as one is available to them.

These divisions along the lines of news consumption point to deeper issues of misinformation among the public. For example, while COVID-19 is notably more dangerous than the flu, the notion that they are equivalent is prevalent among a minority of the public (34%). Though this belief is far more common among Republicans (45%) than Democrats (27%) or Independents (29%), partisanship is not the primary driver of these differences about the severity of COVID-19. Instead, news consumption is again at issue: half of Fox News viewers (51%), and eight in ten (82%) of those who get their news primarily from conservative websites, say the coronavirus is no worse than the flu.

News source also seems to be a key factor in belief of an additional piece of COVID-19 misinformation: that the virus was developed in a Chinese lab. Four in ten Americans overall (40%) say this theory is true, as do three-quarters of Fox News viewers (74%) and nine in ten consumers of conservative online news (91%). By contrast, Americans who get their information from more mainstream sources are far less likely to believe this theory: 34 percent for consumers of public TV and radio, and 30 percent for viewers of the main broadcast networks.

Japan - 253,013 cases, 3,726 deaths

A third wave of COVID-19 infections is spreading in Japan. The more than 4,900 new cases nationwide set a record, as did the 68 deaths reported that day. Tokyo accounted for a quarter of new infections (with 1,278), not far behind New Year's Eve's record number of 1,337. Even Japan's top sumo wrestler, yokozuka Hakuho, has tested positive. With more infections come more severely ill patients, putting pressure on Japanese medical resources.

The pandemic is also putting pressure on Japanese prime minister Suga. Yomiuri polling conducted December 26-27 finds Suga’s approval down sharply, falling to 45 percent from 61 percent earlier in December. That sharp decline in approval is likely driven by growing disapproval of the government’s pandemic response: six in ten (62%) give the government negative marks, and three-quarters (77%) say that Suga has not demonstrated leadership skills in responding to the crisis.

In response to the rising cases and growing political pressure, Suga is expected to declare a second state of emergency for Tokyo. The move is one Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike and the governors of neighboring prefectures have urged the government to do. The public is also onboard: Yomiuri polling finds two-thirds (66%) favor a nationwide state of emergency declaration. But experts worry that, given the limited powers of the Japanese government, that a state of emergency may not be enough to halt the spread of the disease.

Businesses in the area are concerned about the economic impact of a second state of emergency. But according to a Kyodo News survey of 109 major companies, most Japanese businesses (72%) expect that the Japanese economy will see moderate growth in the coming year. Reasons cited for that optimism include post-pandemic stability (64%), recovering private consumption (47%), and overseas economic recoveries (32%).

South Korea - 65,818 cases, 1,027 deaths

After a long period of manageable daily COVID-19 cases, South Korea is battling its largest outbreak since the pandemic began. On January 3, the country recorded 1,020 cases, and as the JoongAng Ilbo reports, more than one-quarter of those cases were untraceable. This is a worrying new development for a country which has made contact tracing a key feature in containing outbreaks.

As cases numbers have climbed, the government has extended the ban on small private gatherings until January 17. The scope of that ban has also widened. While it initially covered Seoul, it now applies to the entire country.

Low numbers of COVID-19 cases were key in the Moon administration’s approach to vaccines. In late 2020, while much of the world raced to negotiate contracts for vaccine supplies, South Korea opted to bide its time. At the time, there were often fewer than 10 new cases per day and the country was lauded for its approach to controlling the virus. Thus, the thinking outlined by the administration was that it could wait to negotiate deals to ensure better price for those vaccines as well as ensuring those vaccines were safe. But the underlying assumption—that new cases would remain limited and controllable—now looks shaky. As countries around the world begin to rollout their vaccination programs, South Korea will only begin in February. In an ironic twist, the first vaccinations in South Korea were administered to US soldiers based in the country.

When vaccines do become available, the Korean public is ready to line up. In Gallup Korea polling conducted November 5-29 as part of the WIN World Survey, 87 percent said they would get the vaccine. That was the fifth highest among countries included in the survey—trailing Vietnam (98%), India (91%) China (91%), and Denmark (87%).

As this has played out, President Moon’s job approval (39%) fell to its lowest point in 2020. But it is unclear how closely this is tied to his handling of vaccines. South Korea is also undergoing a raging debate about how to deal with soaring real estate prices, as well as a bitter fight to establish the Corruption Investigation Office.

Iran - 1.2+ million cases, 55,830 deaths

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to take off in early 2020, Iran was one of the first nations to have a large outbreak. Although state officials initially downplayed the virus, quickly mounting numbers forced a reckoning and a change in strategy. Iran’s response became stricter—limiting travel, closing businesses, and restricting gatherings. Tehran was able to reign in the rate of new infections until a precipitous spike in late October and November, which saw 13,000 cases per day during its peak around November 30. The Iranian government imposed a two-week lockdown on November 21 to stem the spread of the virus and the rate of cases subsequently dropped by half. Nonetheless, officials announced at the end of the two weeks that partial lockdowns would continue and masks would remain required across the country as cases remain elevated.

A survey conducted by IranPoll, one of the only independent research organizations in Iran, collected data on the sentiments of Iranian people from September 1-October 2. Given that this was before the large wave of November, the results reflect primarily the prevailing feelings after half a year of restrictions and economic pain from the global economic downturn and continuing sanctions.

Regarding the economic situation in Iran, three quarters of Iranians (74%) say it is somewhat bad (22%) or very bad (53%). And, 72 percent say that the economic conditions in Iran are worsening. However, just a third of Iranians attribute that to foreign sanctions and pressures (36%); 57 percent say that domestic economic mismanagement and corruption has the greatest negative impact on the Iranian economy. These results are fairly in line with the previous results of this question, which saw 55 percent of Iranians saying the same thing in October 2019.

Despite these criticisms of the government, Iranians are also cognizant of the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy. Asked whether the Iranian government should limit economic activities in order to control the spread of the virus, or encourage economic activities in spite of the virus, a majority would prefer the former (57%) while less than a third (29%) would prefer the latter.

Beyond economic issues, Iranians have a fairly positive view of the government’s actions during this time. A majority of Iranians (70%) say that governmental actions have been as effective (40%) or more effective (30%) than other nations that are similar to Iran. On top of that, more than eight in ten Iranians (85%) say that the performance of the public health system in Iran has been somewhat good (47%) or very good (38%). Although many Iranians have a critical eye for the government and its corruption, they appear to have a fairly positive view of how Tehran has dealt with the pandemic.

Finally, although cases have remained elevated, Iranians report careful adhesion to the mask mandate, though not as careful as in the United States. Just one in ten Iranians (9%) say that they do not wear a mark over their nose and mouth when they go out; 57 percent say that they do always, and 18 percent say that they do most of the time. By comparison, a Morning Consult poll from October found that three quarters of Americans (74%) report always wearing a mask when they leave home. Despite greater adherence to mask wearing in the United States, the rate of infections per 100,000 people is much greater in the United States (64 as of Dec. 24) than in Iran (8 as of Dec. 24).

However, with regard to the vaccine, Iranians are much more likely to have the intention to take it than in the United States. In Iran, a majority say they will definitely take it (62%) and another quarter (25%) say they will probably take it. A Pew survey fielded from September 8-13 in the United States revealed that just 21 percent say they would definitely take it while 30 percent say they would probably take it. Nonetheless, the availability of the vaccine in the United States will likely be much greater than it will be in Iran.

France - 2.6+ million cases, 66,282 deaths>

Case numbers in France have remained at lower levels weeks after their second national lockdown ended on December 15, though a curfew remains in place. The 8pm curfew remains in place for most of France, however in 15 provinces, the curfew was moved to 6pm. Despite this measure, it is still unclear what the effects of the holidays will be, particularly as reports emerged of large parties happening throughout France, including one rave near Rennes attended by 2,500 people.

For Christmas, a third of French people (34%) reported that they planned to go somewhere besides their home to celebrate, according to a December 22-23 Odoxa poll. And three in ten (29%) say that 7 or more people will be at their Christmas celebration, with 10 percent saying that 10 or more people will be there. While the majority of French people are planning to stay at home and have no more than the government-suggested cap of 6 people for Christmas, the proportion of people that plan to break these rules could cause a new wave of infections. Moreover, a quarter of respondents (25%) said that they would have friends over or go out on New Year’s Eve.

In addition to a potential holiday surge of cases, the French government is receiving criticism for the slow pace of vaccinations so far. As of January 4, a few hundred people in France have been vaccinated, compared to 85,000 in Italy, 200,000 in Germany, and nearly 1 million in the United Kingdom. But, even if the rate of vaccinations increases, there will likely be other obstacles to immunizing the population. According to a December 22-23 Odoxa poll, a majority of French people (58%) say they will certainly not (26%) or probably not (32%) get vaccinated. Among those who do not want to get vaccinated are majorities of people under 50, working class people, and supporters of the far-right and far-left political parties.

United Kingdom - 2.7+ million cases, 76,305 deaths

The United Kingdom is experiencing a precipitous surge in cases, with the average number of infections nearly doubling in the last two weeks. In part, this significant increase can be attributed to the emergence of a new strain of COVID-19 which is reportedly 70 percent more transmissible than the original strain, according to early estimates. As the situation rapidly deteriorates, the government is moving to impose new lockdowns and other restrictions to stem the acceleration of hospitalizations and deaths.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced early on Monday that mainland Scotland will go into lockdown at midnight on Monday and remain closed until the end of January. On Monday night, Boris Johnson announced that the United Kingdom would enter a full national lockdown for the next six weeks. Among the new measures, Johnson said that people must stay home except for limited reasons and that schools must move to remote learning beginning on Tuesday.

A Deltapoll survey fielded December 26-30 revealed that a small plurality of Britons (46%) believe the United Kingdom is doing the wrong thing when it comes to dealing with the coronavirus outbreak while 41 percent believe they are doing the right thing. In particular, 50 percent say Boris Johnson has done badly dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of the blame for the current crisis in the United Kingdom, British people appear willing to follow certain restrictions to improve the situation. More than eight in ten (84%) support wearing a mask indoors in public places right now, and 72 percent support wearing a mask in all public places, indoor or outdoor.

Despite the escalating magnitude of the outbreak in Great Britain, a plurality of Britons say that they are optimistic about the year ahead (36%).

About the Authors
Research Assistant
Council expert Brendan Helm
Brendan Helm is a research assistant for the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy and Public Opinion teams at the Council. After earning his undergraduate degree in international relations from the College of William and Mary, he worked at Teaching, Research, and International Policy—a survey project which examined the gap between academia and policymaking.
Council expert Brendan Helm
Assistant Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Council expert Craig Kafura
Craig Kafura is the assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. At the Council, he coordinates work on public opinion and foreign policy and is a regular contributor to the public opinion and foreign policy blog Running Numbers.
Council expert Craig Kafura
Marshall M. Bouton Fellow for Asia Studies
Council expert Karl Friedhoff
Karl Friedhoff was a Korea Foundation-Mansfield Foundation US-Korea Nexus Scholar and a member of the Mansfield Foundation’s Trilateral Working Group prior to joining the Council. Previously, he was a program officer in the Public Opinion Studies Program at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies based in Seoul, South Korea.
Council expert Karl Friedhoff

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