We have nothing to fear but fear itself — and, of course, the virus. Nothing has provoked more fear and public upheaval in America in the last 50 years as has COVID-19, and those who are most scared are those who have never experienced events of similar scale — the millennials, according to the latest Harris Poll fresh out of the field.
The last time America ground to a standstill was 9/11, when all air travel into and out of the country was suspended for a week while we secured our system. Stocks swooned and recovered, and daily life returned, even as the scars from that day launched two wars. But millennials have no real recollection of those events 18 years ago, and no recollection at all of how polio struck kids in their prime in the 1940s and 1950s and even affected the very president who issued the famous “nothing to fear” declaration.
As a country we are close to panic levels of fear. Over half of the respondents to the first of the Harris Poll’s surveys on the coronavirus outbreak — conducted using a nationally representative sample of 2,019 U.S. adults between March 5 and 9 — said they feared they would die of COVID-19.
Of all the activities tested, Americans were most likely to continue to go to the grocery store, which, rightly or wrongly, was something 80 percent would keep on doing. Eighty-one percent of Americans age 65+ wanted to continue family gatherings, and 71 percent of millennials would do the same. Most Americans, regardless of age, feel obligated to go to work (83 percent) and more than half are still willing to attend school despite the coronavirus outbreak.
Where Americans said they were NOT willing to go included sporting events, bars and gyms, as a majority said they would no longer engage in those activities, suggesting that major sports leagues really had no choice but to shut down or postpone their seasons for now.
According to the findings, politicians may be downplaying the virus, but the media is perhaps over-hyping it, sensing the next big reporting thread now that impeachment and the Democratic presidential primaries are pretty much over.
Perhaps the most interesting findings, however, were that women and younger people had the most fear, while some of the most vulnerable to the virus were less concerned. Fifty-seven percent of millennials were afraid of dying from the virus compared to 47 percent of those over 65. This is hugely significant from a public health perspective. It also raises the question of what is driving such fear among millennials — is it their engagement in social media that is creating greater concern, or is it their lack of any comparable events in their lifetime? I think it is a combination: A lack of any real experience with a pandemic crisis, combined with hearing about it constantly through social media, means that they have no personal experience to moderate or check against what is in their feed. Older people, in contrast, have been through comparable crises, making it natural for them to wonder what all the fuss is about.
Eighty-two percent of women are very concerned about the spread of the virus in the U.S., versus 72 percent of men, and so women are likely to be leading the way in keeping their families safe and well-stocked with consumer goods like hand soap and toilet paper. Unlike the age-related findings, this is no surprise as most studies show women tend to be more concerned about the economy.
Public policymakers are encouraging what may appear to some as severe actions, at the expense of economic growth, because they fear the worst-case scenario — that the virus, left to spread as it has in countries like Italy, will lead to overcrowded hospitals lacking in adequate ventilators, intensive care beds and testing materials. They are looking to “flatten the curve” to prevent Americans from being unable to access lifesaving treatment.
Companies and marketers out there seem to be reading all the signals correctly for now. Social distancing and working from home need to be accommodated, if not mandated, and mass events need to be suspended. Do not expect hundreds of millions of healthy Americans to sit around and do nothing — expect them to order online as never before. Makers of hygiene products are in for a bit of an unexpected bonanza, along with food delivery services, streaming services — everything internet will be taxed to the limit. Americans might even get comfortable with video conferencing in ways that permanently reduce business travel, and perhaps some of these new hygiene habits will make us all a bit healthier in the long run.
For now, we can all hope these measures avoid the crisis that the policymakers are afraid of, which would drive the panic we are seeing into a true frenzy.
Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a global organization of digital-first marketing companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.