The Covid-19 pandemic has affected almost every country on the planet, but the responses and measures put in place by different administrations has varied.
Some adopted stringent measures, such as shelter-in-place orders, while others implemented early and widespread testing and tracing procedures. The different responses along with demographic, geographical, social, and political factors have all determined how well or not countries have managed to contain the virus.
Regardless of the country, there are common denominators that apply to us all – age and income. There has already been debate about how these factors affect an individual’s chances of contracting the virus. It is also important to understand how the different preventative measures, such as lockdowns, have impacted different age and income groups.
A key concern is that the groups that have been affected most by the measures are not the ones who face the highest risks of severe illness. Such misalignment between personal incentives and burdens on the one hand, and public health concerns on the other hand, are a challenge to devising and implementing effective public policies. Without evidence that improves our understanding of such misalignment, our ability to contain the epidemic and reduce economic and social damage is limited.
Our research is based on data from around 6,000 individuals from three Western countries—US, UK, and Italy—and three Asian countries—China, Japan, and South Korea. As well as documenting changes in income/work and leisure in late April 2020, we also examined psychological factors and attitudes towards measures (wearing a mask in particular) and the approach taken by governments.
Across all countries, except for South Korea, the younger you are, the more likely you are to have experienced a fall in household income. Except for Italy and Korea, those with incomes in the top 20% are significantly less likely to have experienced a drop in household income. In all countries, younger and higher income groups are substantially more likely to be teleworking than those in the bottom 20% of income.
In every country, the older groups appear to have reduced their social life the most. Higher income groups are more likely to engage in leisure activities with a social component in all countries. Since these have been effectively discouraged, higher income groups have experienced a larger negative impact on their social lives.
Younger groups are more likely to report negative, non-financial effects. However, we also found that younger people reported experiencing some benefits from the pandemic—between enjoying more free time, enjoying time with family, cleaner air, and less noise pollution. Conversely, older groups are less likely to report positive effects.
Young people are most affected (negatively and positively) in non-financial, psychological terms. All income groups appear to experience negative effects, but positive effects appear to be concentrated among the higher income groups.
Wearing a mask
This behaviour involves a relatively low cost, and it has a clear solidarity component, as the benefit is mostly for others rather than oneself. Older groups across countries are much more likely to say they are wearing a mask, whereas there are no discernible differences across income groups.
Support for governments and measures
Older individuals tend to be more supportive of government measures, although this is lower in Japan where support for the government is the lowest overall. Patterns across income groups were less clear.
What are the implications?
The COVID epidemic and measures taken in response appear to have affected different groups of the population in different ways. Subsequently, certain subgroups of the population are economically and psychologically more vulnerable than others. Understanding the heterogeneous impact of COVID is essential toward improving measures that align with the societal goal of containing the pandemic, at the same time as minimising economic and social damage.
The evidence that younger people are more affected by the indirect impacts of the pandemic and that they support government responses less, strengthens the case for more differentiated policies that shield them from the negative consequences of the epidemic and necessary measures. Several recent papers propose policies that target lockdown measures to the older part of the population. The advantage would be that such targeted policies would allow for greater economic recovery, while shielding those with the highest health risks.
From the start of the epidemic not surprisingly the number one objective of governments has been health, and policy has been targeted at containing the virus and protecting the population. As time has gone by, the debate has shifted towards the balance between the health imperative and the economic costs of lockdown measures. Other areas such as the psychological effects and the wider health implications of the lockdown have yet to receive the same attention.
While there is some time to go before the end of large-scale lockdowns, one hopes that we are on our way out of the crisis. Now is the time to start to consider the wider implications of the pandemic. In the short term, we need to manage and address the psychological and social issues it is causing. In the longer term, we need to learn from this experience, to be prepared for future pandemics, where a more holistic approach could be taken to try to manage equitably the health, economic and social consequences.