New study reveals public perception of the seriousness of COVID-19 in comparison to other health problems in seven middle income countries

December 22, 2023

As the world grapples with the ongoing realities of COVID-19, Dale Whittington, PhD, professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the UNC GIllings School of Global Public Health, assisted with conducting a recent survey in seven middle-income countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America by that sheds light on how the public perceives the threat of COVID-19 relative to other major health challenges.

Dale Whittington

Dr. Dale Whittington

The study, carried out in early 2022 using YouGov’s internet panels, aimed to gauge public attitudes towards the pandemic in comparison to health problems such as alcoholism and drug use, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, lung cancer and respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution and smoking, and water-borne diseases like diarrhea.

Survey respondents participated in a unique ranking exercise using a repeated best-worst question format, enabling them to order the seriousness of these health problems. The researchers then utilized rank-ordered logit models to analyze the data, allowing for meaningful comparisons within and across the seven countries.

Key findings from the survey include:

  • In six of the seven countries, respondents perceived respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution and smoking as a more serious problem than COVID-19.
  • Only in Vietnam did COVID-19 rank above other respiratory illnesses in terms of perceived severity.
  • Alcoholism and drug use emerged as the second most serious problem in African countries, highlighting regional variations in public perception.
  • HIV/AIDS ranked relatively high across all countries.
  • Water-borne diseases ranked at or near the bottom of the ranking in all seven countries.
  • Covariates, including survey takers’ general COVID knowledge, played a significant role in explaining differences in perceptions: Familiarity with statistics about the pandemic strongly correlated with variations in the perceived threat of COVID-19.

In conclusion, the survey reveals that in the seven middle-income countries, COVID-19 generally is considered a serious health issue — on par with HIV/AIDS. This survey-based approach provides valuable insights into how the threat of a newly emergent disease fits into the larger context of public health concerns.

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