Lockdown Strain Poses Risk to Recovery


May 6, 2020


Predata’s analytics show signs of strain and stress among online audiences as governments in Europe and across the United States prepare to ease coronavirus lockdowns. Persistent lockdown strain has the potential to frustrate officials’ plans to use limited reopening to spur broader economic recovery.

In Europe, plans for reopening have driven increasing engagement with topics related to psychological strain and the political extremes. Instead of the psychological or even economic impacts of the pandemic, Americans appear focused on fringe conspiracy theories.

Signs of Strain in Europe

Predata’s Pandemic Pessimism Index—which measures attention to themes including medical conspiracy theories, hypochondria, and common psychological disorders—peaked in French, Italian, German, and Spanish towards the end of April, nearing or exceeding levels reached when lockdown measures were first imposed. Across all of the languages, the top drivers were psychological conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, making apparent Europeans’ concerns over the mental health impacts of the pandemic.

At the same time, the political extremes are drawing increased attention across the continent as national governments face criticism from both ends of the spectrum for not reopening fast enough or for insufficiently supporting households and small businesses. While the far left and right have received elevated attention in France, the UK, and Spain, this trend is most pronounced in Italy, where attention to far right concepts such as fascism rose even higher at the end of April than when Italy imposed a nationwide lockdown in early March.

U.S. Focus Shifts to Conspiracies

Unlike European audiences, Americans appear relatively less interested in the mental health implications of the pandemic: the English-language Pandemic Pessimism Index has been steadily declining since the middle of March. Attention to the U.S. economy has also dropped off and is now at the same level as before the outset of the pandemic, suggesting macroeconomic concerns may not be front of mind either.

Instead, quarantined Americans took to researching common far right conspiracy theories more so than at any point in the last five years. Pages on subjects such as QAnon, the New World Order conspiracy, and Pizzagate received more than five times as many views in April 2020 than in April 2019.

The anti-vaccination movement in the United States also continues to draw attention. Most notably, at the end of April, attention to the 1905 Supreme Court case Jacobson v. Massachusetts spiked 100 times greater than its all-time high before the pandemic in early 2019. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the court upheld the state’s right to enact mandatory vaccination orders during a flu epidemic. Though attention to anti-vaccination themes has been rising since early April, it was primarily driven by the concept of vaccine hesitancy and campaigner Andrew Wakefield rather than legal challenges to government vaccination campaigns.

Governments beginning to reopen their economies face rising anxiety that may complicate their efforts. Once shops and offices are open, will people frequent them? Unless the psychological and political strain imposed by weeks of lockdown abates, governments may struggle to spark the economic recovery they seek.

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