Skip to main content

Global Public Opinion Shows Partial Return to Normalcy, Optimism

Running Numbers by Craig Kafura, Karl Friedhoff, Brendan Helm, Luke Witzig, Kaya Schaffner, Lea Chang, and Dominique Smith

COVID-19 cases are on the decline worldwide and in some countries, people are feeling hopeful as they recover aspects of their pre-COVID lives. 

This week the world passed the 103.9 million case mark, with over 2.4 million deaths attributed to COVID-19.  Cases continue to decline worldwide, though cases remain relatively high in the United States, Latin America, and several European countries. Despite the overall decrease in infections, health authorities warn that new variants may lead to a rapid rise in cases and that action is necessary to reduce the spread. 

For this week’s COVID-19 update, the Chicago Council Survey team looks at polling results from the United States, Japan, South Korea, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and India.

Key Findings

  • Although the French government is hesitant to impose another lockdown, 55 percent of French people express support for another ‘confinement.’
  • After the initial success of the United Kingdom’s vaccine campaign, more than half of British respondents (54%) say that the country should pass on some of its excess doses to other nations.
  • As the US vaccination campaign expands, a majority of Americans (61%) say they know someone who has been vaccinated—and Americans who know a vaccinated person are more likely to want a vaccine for themselves.
  • Japan has begun vaccinating health care workers. Most Japanese say they expect to get vaccinated (81%), and four in ten (39%) say they plan to get a vaccine as soon as they are able.
  • After celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday and experiencing higher volumes of travel and family gatherings, South Koreans are concerned that the festivities will cause a spike in cases.
  • In India, new cases have plummeted to less than 10,000 a week, leaving a majority of Indians (85%) optimistic about the future of the pandemic in their country.
  • Despite widespread support for the vaccine in Italy (80% say they will take it), the country has experienced a slow vaccine rollout with only about 1.3 million Italians being fully vaccinated thus far.

The United States 

27.8 million cases, 489,121 deaths 

With cases declining across the country and millions of people receiving vaccine shots each week, Americans are starting to look ahead to returning to a normal, pre-COVID life. It’s also starting to look less risky, according to Axios/Ipsos polling conducted February 5-8. Though most Americans say returning to normal presents either a large (32%) or moderate (34%) risk to their health and well-being, this is the lowest level of concern since the fall of 2020, before the third wave of coronavirus infections swept across the country. That lower sense of risk means some Americans are getting back to normal. A majority of Americans say they’ve already gotten back to normal levels of going grocery shopping (72%), and half (51%) say they’re going to retail stores at pre-COVID levels.  

Key to getting back to normal will be vaccinations and announcements from local and national health officials. And both play a role in how the public thinks about a return to normal. But for many normal activities, there’s not yet a clear marker for a return to normal. Pluralities or majorities of Americans say they don’t know when they’ll go back to normal when it comes to using taxis or rideshares (54%), traveling via air and mass transit (44%), attending in-person events (40%), or taking vacations (38%). 

Of course, when officials say it is safe will depend on both the course of the pandemic and the success of the vaccination campaign currently underway. As Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), wrote last week, “Knowing someone who has been vaccinated and seeing that the vaccine does not produce any significant adverse effects is emerging as the leading reason people are willing to get vaccinated themselves.” Indeed, in KFF’s polling, Americans who know someone who has been vaccinated are more likely to get the vaccine as soon as possible than Americans who don’t know a vaccinated person (52%, compared to 37%). That same relationship shows up in a recent HuffPost/YouGov survey conducted Feb 5-7, which finds that six in ten Americans (61%) know a vaccinated person. In that survey, roughly half of Americans who know a vaccinated person plan to get vaccinated (47%), while a similar proportion who don’t know a vaccinated person say they do not plan to get vaccinated (45%).  

At the moment, the major obstacle to the US vaccination campaign is supply, rather than demand among the public. But that won’t be the case forever. As the vaccination campaign expands beyond key target populations over the next month, we’ll be watching these numbers on vaccination intent closely.  

Japan 

419,015 cases, 7,102 deaths 

Japan is getting a double dose of good news. First, cases in Japan have fallen from the recent wave that led to the most recent state of emergency declaration. And second, Japan has begun its vaccination campaign, starting with a target group of 40,000 health workers.  

The successive good news is also boosting favorable views of the government’s COVID response – though that’s not to say they’re generally positive, but rather less negative. Asahi polling conducted February 13-14 finds a majority of Japanese (56%) give the government’s coronavirus response negative marks, down from 63 percent last month, while 31 percent have a positive view of the response, up from 25 percent last month.  

Despite—or perhaps due to—the negative views of the government’s response, new legislation giving the government more powers in health crises is getting mixed reviews. The public is divided (43% in favor, 46% opposed) over the recently-approved law allowing the government to penalize restaurants for not following government mandates on service-hour limitations as well as individuals who refuse hospitalization while infected.  

However, the government gets somewhat more favorable reviews on the upcoming vaccination campaign, with a majority of the public saying they approve of the government’s work on vaccines to some extent (62%; another 9% strongly approve). But, that doesn’t mean everyone is clamoring for a vaccine, though demand is rising. Three in ten Japanese (29%) say they want to get vaccinated as soon as possible, up from two in ten (21%) last month. Most Japanese (62%, down from 70% last month) still say they plan to wait and see first before getting a vaccine. And, few are outright opposed; only eight percent say they will not get vaccinated. Mainichi polling finds even stronger support for vaccination. Most Japanese say they expect to get vaccinated (81% up from 72% last month), and four in ten (39%) say they plan to get a vaccine as soon as they are able. Roughly half (52%) – and more women (57%) than men (48%) – say they’ll be more cautious about vaccination.  

With the pandemic improving, there is also slightly more support for holding the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer, though it remains a minority position (21%, up from 11% last month). A plurality (43%) instead favors a second postponement, and nearly a third (31%) thinks the Games should be canceled. But who is running the Tokyo Games is now up in the air, creating even more uncertainty around the once-delayed 2020 Games.  

South Korea 

84,946 cases, 1,538 deaths 

As of February 16, South Korea reported 457 new cases, up from a prior low of 304 on February 14. But the coming weeks will be critical. Last week, the country celebrated the Lunar New Year holiday, which normally sees high volumes of travel and family gatherings, raising concerns that the celebrations will result in a spike in cases. 

These family gatherings will have been in addition to the ongoing gatherings of religious institutions around the country, many of which have faced backlash from their lax COVID-19 restrictions. While some churches are following basic guidelines such as mask wearing, they are also facing criticism for boosting coronavirus conspiracy theories. The most prominent example comes from the Yoido Full Gospel Church. With 500,000 followers, it is the largest Pentecostal congregation in the world. Its leader recently claimed that carrying a small card that fits inside the breast pocket of a shirt would emit “waves” that fend off the virus.   

The pandemic is not the only item of concern: the unemployment rate in South Korea hit 5.4 percent in January and is expected to rise further. This will bring added pressure to the Moon administration to loosen public health restrictions on businesses, which will make fully containing the virus more challenging.  

But help may be on the way. South Korea plans to begin vaccine distribution on February 26, and has approved the AstraZeneca and Oxford University vaccines for use in the country. The government is also in negotiations with Moderna to build a vaccine production factory in Seoul. If an agreement is reached, the company is expected to invest $200 million in the factory, giving it increased access to the Asian market.  

France 

3.5 million cases, 83,122 deaths 

France is not out of the woods yet. Since exiting its second lockdown two months ago, coronavirus cases have slowly crept up to around 20,000 per day nationwide for the last two weeks. While the government aims to implement stricter rules and avoid a third national lockdown, calls for a new ‘confinement’ remain a majority preference (55%) among the public, according to a February 10-11 survey of 1,005 French adults conducted by Odoxa.  

Despite a broad willingness to enter a new lockdown, the public also acknowledges of the costs of doing so. While three-quarters of French people (75%) say that a decision by President Macron to enter a third lockdown before the end of the winter vacation would be legitimate if the public health indicators justified it, another seven in ten (70%) say it would be a blow to those who already scheduled their winter vacation. And nearly half (45%) say that such a decision would be a failure for Macron.  

At the same time, polling from Odoxa conducted February 3-4 among 1,005 French adults reveals that the COVID-19 pandemic may have given rise to a generational conflict among younger and older French people. Indeed, 56 percent of French people say they fear a generational conflict wherein important disagreements arise between the young and the old. And, majorities of both the young (57%) and the old (70%) believe that the other age group does not realize the difficulties that their age group has experienced since the beginning of the health crisis. But the difficulties experienced by each group varies significantly in their nature. The elderly must contend with an increased risk to their health from the virus, while the young report experiencing a deterioration of their social relationships (66%), the feeling of not being taken into account in the government’s decisions (58%), and mental health problems (56%).  

The United Kingdom  

4 million cases, 118,933 deaths 

Throughout the United Kingdom, cases have been falling rapidly for the last five weeks as their third national lockdown has forced people to stay inside and avoid risky contacts. The rate of deaths, too, has been falling, especially among those Britons aged 80 and older who have been first in line to receive the vaccination. According to the Guardian, the death rate for people over 80 has fallen 62 percent since January 24, at which point a third of that age group had gotten their first vaccine dose. And, Downing Street has estimated that all adults over 50 will be vaccinated by May. 

With the success of the United Kingdom’s vaccination campaign, an Ipsos MORI poll has found that there is a popular willingness to share the country’s excess vaccines. The survey, conducted February 5-8 among 1,085 British adults, found that a majority of Britons (54%) say the United Kingdom should pass on some of its vaccines doses to be used in other countries, while three in ten (30%) want the United Kingdom to keep them in case it needs to use them in the future. Britons are mostly likely to support sharing their extra vaccines when everyone in the United Kingdom is vaccinated (68%). However, around half (51%) support sharing when over-50s, frontline workers, and those with clinical conditions have been vaccinated first.  

But there is some division over whether to charge for vaccines, or give them away for free.  Forty-three percent express support for giving away the vaccine free of charge, while slightly more (55%) prefer to sell the vaccine. The greatest support, however, arises for the prospect of charging rich countries for the extra vaccines while giving them away to poor countries (63% support). The public is also split over where to send these vaccines. Four in ten (42%) think that the vaccines should go to poorer countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, while slightly fewer (38%) say they should go to poor Commonwealth countries such as India, Nigeria, South Africa, or Jamaica.  

India 

10.9 million cases, 155,913 deaths 

Over the course of the pandemic, India has reported the second-highest confirmed cases of any country in the world. Due to its large population and fragile health system, many feared the virus would escalate even further and overtake the United States with the highest case toll. However, India’s coronavirus numbers have plummeted in 2021. The country is on track to report less than 10,000 new cases a week and boasts a national recovery rate of 97.32%, among the highest in the world. And with testing more widespread and deaths declining, two-thirds of Indians surveyed in a February 1st poll by YouGov (63%) think the government is handling the coronavirus “very” or “somewhat” well.  

Health experts are uncertain as to the cause of this decline, with some pointing to government intervention and public compliance with health advisories. Surveys provide some evidence for the latter: according to a NCAER survey conducted in July, nearly all respondents (95%) stated they wore a mask the last time they went out, demonstrating social compliance by the vast majority of Indians.   

Regardless of the cause, Indians are optimistic about the future of the pandemic. Most people in India (85%) believe the coronavirus situation is getting better in their country, according to a February 8 YouGov poll. Their optimism is supported by recent serological studies finding that a majority of people in certain areas of India have already been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These findings, in combination with the fact that India has a predominately young population (54% are under the age of 25), paint a promising picture of the future for the country.   

India has also begun its COVID-19 vaccine rollout and is on track to become the world’s second-largest COVID vaccine maker. The country initially struggled to vaccinate its healthcare and frontline workers, as some expressed hesitation over the safety of the vaccine. But a majority of Indians (61%) say they will take the vaccine or have already done so, according to a February 1 YouGov poll. The majority (85%) of health and frontline workers have now been vaccinated and health officials hope the rest of the population will reach similar levels of protection by the end of the year.  

Italy 

2.7 million cases, 94,540 deaths 

Italy was one of the worst hit countries at the start of the pandemic almost a year ago. Now, as the country tries to navigate this global health crisis, it is also experiencing a political crisis. Late in January, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned due to coalition partner Italia Viva withdrawing support from the government. On February 13th, Mario Draghi was confirmed as the new Prime Minister. He is coming into office with economic recovery on his to-do list. 

Italy’s economy, which is the third largest in the European Union (EU) after Germany and France, has been falling behind in growth for years compared to other EU countries, and the pandemic has exacerbated this position. The tourism industry, which accounts for 13 percent of Italy’s economy, collapsed last year as a result of the pandemic, and a return to pre-pandemic levels will take some time to come. The economic troubles are also leading to even higher debt levels, with Italy’s public debt set to reach 158.5% of GDP by the end of 2021. 

Because Draghi was able to save the euro from collapse nearly a decade ago—earning him the nickname “Super Mario”—Italians are now looking to him to jumpstart economic recovery. Draghi has the advantage of record-low borrowing costs and large-scale EU financing. As part of the EU’s coronavirus recovery package, the country has more than 200 billion euros in EU grants and loans available. For this reason, the majority of Italians support this new government and are confident that Draghi’s policies will help the country out of its economic and health crises.  

Vaccinations may help Super Mario get Italy out of the health portion of the crisis. According to an IPSOS survey conducted from January 28-31, most Italians (80%) agree that they’ll get the vaccine when it becomes available to them, and two-thirds (66%) plan to do so immediately or within one month of availability. As in most countries, those who said they would not take the vaccine (20 percent) were concerned about side effects or worried that a vaccine is moving through clinical trials too quickly. The wide support for getting vaccinated also extends to making the vaccine mandatory for anyone over the age of 18, which six in ten Italians (60%) favor doing. 

Despite the widespread support for the vaccine, only about 1.3 million Italians have been fully vaccinated so far, according to a report released by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. In part, the slow vaccine rollout is due to vaccine production issues as Pfizer and AstraZeneca slow vaccine deliveries to Europe.  

About the Authors
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
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
Luke Witzig
Public Opinion Intern
Kaya Schaffner
Public Opinion Intern - East Asia
Lea Chang
Public Opinion Intern - East Asia
Dominique Smith
Intern, Office of the President