September 2, 2020 | By Craig Kafura, Brendan Helm, Samantha Yi

Global Public Opinion and the Coronavirus: September 2

This week the world passed the 25.7 million case mark, with over 857,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19. The rate of new cases continues to ebb and flow in different parts of the world as people try to return to normalcy as best as they can. The United States continues to see elevated levels of cases, with school campuses becoming the new epicenters of the virus as thousands of students return to class.

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, France, and the UK.

Key Findings

  • Two-thirds of American parents of school-age children have sent their child back to school, either in person (21%) or virtually (46%). But half (48%) say their school district has had to change schooling plans since the school year started.
  • Two-thirds of Japanese (63%) disapprove of the Abe administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic so far, and nearly all Japanese (88%) say that Abe’s decision to step down is an appropriate one.
  • While South Korea was initially quick to contain the virus at the beginning of the outbreak, a recent uptick in daily new cases has led to fear among South Koreans, with 83 percent reporting a high degree of concern.
  • As French Prime Minister Jean Castex prepares to reveal a €100 billion plan to restart the French economy, over half of French people express that they do not have confidence in Mr. Castex to propose a good plan.
  • The United Kingdom’s exam grading controversy has caused the public’s confidence in the government to drop, with 54 percent disapproving of the government’s handling of this process and just 29 percent approving of Boris Johnson.


United States

6+ million cases, 184,000 deaths

The case counts, and the death toll, continue to rise in the United States. In the most recent Axios/Ipsos survey, conducted August 21-24, a record high 58 percent of Americans know someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, and two in ten (22%) say they know someone who has died from the coronavirus. One factor behind the rising cases is the return of students to university campuses across the country, which are leading to concentrated clusters of coronavirus cases. Ames and Iowa City, home to Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, respectively, have seen cases jump rapidly in the past two weeks, making the two Iowa towns some of the worst local COVID-19 hotspots in the world.

Primary and secondary students are also getting back to school, but slowly, and sometimes remotely. Among parents of school-age children, two-thirds say they have sent their child back to school either in person (21%) or virtually (46%). A fifth of parents who have sent their children back to school report COVID-19 outbreaks or scares within their child’s school district since going back to school, and half (48%) say their school district has had to change its schooling plan since the school year started.

Still, Americans remain optimistic. A majority (57%) are very or somewhat hopeful that the US will get the pandemic under control in the next six months, with Republicans (82%) far more optimistic than Independents (53%) or Democrats (42%). Complicating that optimism: only 39 percent of Americans believe the federal government is making the country’s coronavirus recovery better. Even fewer have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the information provided by the White House (32%) or President Trump (31%), and while Democratic nominee Joe Biden gets higher marks (46%), it remains a minority.

Nine weeks—and four more of our global coronavirus survey updates—remain before the US presidential election. It promises to be an interesting couple of months.


69,000 cases, 1,300 deaths

Few things can force the coronavirus pandemic off the front page. But the announcement that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history—was stepping down did just that. And perhaps already looking forward to the uncertainties of a “post-Abeworld, approval of the Abe cabinet jumped to a positive 55 percent in Nikkei polling, up from 43 percent last month.

Abe went out in a rough patch. A Mainichi Shimbun poll conducted in late August found that two-thirds of the public (63%) disapproved of the Abe administration’s response to the coronavirus. More than half (58%) said they were not traveling this summer, or returning home to see family, because of the coronavirus. Before he announced his intention to resign, the public was also split on whether Abe

should continue on or resign. Half said he should quit immediately (26%) or by the end of the year (24%); the other half wanted Abe to continue until next year (26%) or for as long as possible (23%).  

Given his illness, nearly all Japanese (88%) say that his decision to step down is an appropriate one, per Nikkei polling. And looking back on his long tenure, three-quarters (74%) give his seven and a half year second stint as prime minister a favorable rating. Whoever succeeds him in office will confront a range of challenges, not least among them the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

South Korea

21,182 cases, 324 deaths

As of September 1, South Korea saw 21,182 cases nationwide with 324 deaths. But Korea has seen more than 200 coronavirus patients for multiple days since the 18th, the largest rise since March. In response, the government issued orders for the entire country to undertake Level 2 social distancing. The Korea Centers for Disease Control is considering increasing that to Level 3—the highest the government has. This would ban all non-essential outings, as well as meetings of more than ten people. Currently, nearly 56 percent of citizens believe this will be a necessity in order to prevent future resurgences.

The sudden spread is leading to increased fear of infection among the public, with 83 percent reporting a high degree of concern. Simultaneously, recognition of the virus and fear of possible infection exceeded 60 percent for the first time. Despite this resurgence, the approval rate for the Moon administration rose to 47 percent during the third week of August from 39 percent the preceding week. This rise was mainly attributed to meeting citizens’ expectations of rapidly reacting to the cases. It has also overshadowed other domestic issues such as an ongoing controversy revolving around real estate prices and property taxes.

Despite the prolonged high approval ratings, any decline in Moon’s COVID-19 policy approval can be attributed to a sharp decline in approval among the supporters of the conservative opposition—the United Future Party. (This party underwent a name change this week and will now be called the People’s Power Party.) Approval among these partisans fell from 61 percent in July to 38 percent now. Meanwhile, support among Moon’s Democratic Party remained stable, going from 92 percent to 88 percent during that same period.


286,000 cases, 30,600 deaths

Although the interior minister Gérald Darmanin warned on August 31 that the threat of terrorism remains high on French territory as the trials relating to the Charlie Hebdo shooting are set to begin, the French people remain concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. An August 27-28 Odoxa poll reveals that majorities of the French public are still worried about the overall health situation in their country (79%), the health of their relatives (71%), and their own health (55%). However, when it comes to concerns about their own health, 18 to 24-year-old French people are much less distressed (39%) than French people aged 50 to 64 (59%) or those above 64 (61%).

This persisting anxiety also relates to economic affairs. Majorities of the French public express pessimism about France’s economic growth (81%), the purchasing power of French people (80%), and their own economic situation (55%). Considering the 13.8 percent drop in GDP as of July 31, their fears may be reasonable, though this figure is slightly better than the initial predictions of a 17 percent drop. At the same time, however, French prime minister Jean Castex is preparing to reveal a €100 billion plan to restart the French economy. While the details of the plan have yet to be divulged, it presents an opportunity to assuage at least one aspect of the French people’s fears surrounding the pandemic.

However, asked about their confidence in Mr. Castex to propose a good plan, a slight majority (54%) said that they are not very confident (36%) or not confident at all (18%). Respondents’ expectations of this plan are heavily contingent upon their preferred political party, with 91 percent of the supporters of Emmanuel Macron’s party expressing confidence while just 11 percent of the Democratic Socialist Party expresses confidence. According to an August 26 Elabe survey, the lack of confidence in the economic plan reflects a general lack of confidence in the president and prime minister; asked whether they have confidence in Emmanuel Macron and Jean Castex to effectively combat the coronavirus pandemic, 56 percent of French respondents expressed that they are not confident.

The United Kingdom

337,100 cases, 41,500 deaths

In the United Kingdom, a controversy surrounding the GSCEs and A-level exams, Britain’s college placement tests, is the latest consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, shortly before the United Kingdom’s lockdown began, Downing Street cancelled the exams, instead opting to use an algorithm to assign grades to students based on their teacher’s predictions of the students’ performance. But, after the algorithm was used, nearly 40 percent of student grades were reduced by a full grade or more. According to an August 19 Redfield and Wilton survey, while a plurality of Britons (41%) approve of the decision to cancel the exams in the first place, a majority disapprove of the government’s handling of this process (54%). Ultimately, the government decided to give students the option to either accept their teacher’s original predicted grade or the algorithm’s grade, a move of which a plurality of British people approve (37%).

For Boris Johnson and his administration, this scandal is just one of many which have impacted the British public’s view of the government. Consequently, Boris Johnson’s approval rating is down to 29 percent from nearly 50 percent in April and the Conservative party’s approval rating is down to 28 percent from nearly 40 percent in April, according to an August 21-24 Ipsos MORI poll. However, the Conservatives are not the only political party that are facing criticism from the public; both the Labour party (29%) and the Liberal Democrats (13%) are experiencing low favorability, although this has been the case since at least November 2019.

Besides the controversies that have dominated the headlines in the UK, the diminished approval is likely in part the result of continued pessimism among Britons regarding the future of Great Britain’s economy. An August 24 Redfield and Wilton poll shows that 46 percent of the British public is pessimistic (29%) or very pessimistic (17%) about the future of the UK economy. Asked which actions the UK government should take as part of a post-COVID-19 economic recovery, a plurality said tax rises (36%), while another fifth of respondents said that the government should borrow more money (22%) or cut public spending (19%). In regard to their own spending, four in ten Briton’s report that they are spending less than before (42%), mainly due to their own financial concerns (55%). Despite the rampant pessimism and financial concern, a plurality of British respondents (40%) expect the unemployment rate to be between 5 and 10 percent at year end, a relatively optimistic forecast in an otherwise bleak year.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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