The findings of a national survey from researchers at Mary Immaculate College (MIC) and University of Limerick (UL) have revealed the personal and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the public health protocols in Ireland.
The PERSOCOV study, a collaborative project between Professor Michael Breen, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at MIC, and Professor Ross Macmillan, Chair in Sociology at UL, is the first and only nationally representative sample for Ireland and one of the first such surveys in the world dealing with these aspects of the COVID-19 experience.
The study assessed people’s life circumstances and experiences during the month of April to determine the impact of the lockdown on people’s core values, health and wellbeing, work, education, and the degree of their satisfaction with and trust in government and international institutions.
The majority of respondents (80%) reported being satisfied with the public health response to COVID-19 with trust in the government increasing threefold during this period when compared with the 2018 European Social Survey (ESS). This is the highest level of trust recorded by any government in the past 20 years. Just 12% reported having no confidence in the Irish government.
The PERSOCOV study has however highlighted clear tensions in trust in international institutions with almost half of Irish residents having no trust in the US, while 40% have no trust in China. In contrast, trust in the World Health Organisation and United Nations was on par with trust in the Irish government.
Trust in An Garda Síochána also increased by 10% during the COVID-19 period when compared with the ESS 2018, while almost 60% of respondents felt that the Gardaí had behaved “perfectly appropriately” when enforcing COVID-19 restrictions. However, 30% felt that the Gardaí were too lax in their approach with 12% believing that the Gardaí were too strict.
While a slim majority (46%) felt that Gardaí treated everyone the same, 6% felt very strongly that some groups were treated better than others.
In general, respondents felt that people adhered to the restrictions and behaved “properly” during this period. Irish residents also experienced more solidarity than in earlier periods. However, trustworthiness in each other declined as did perceived helpfulness of others, while one-third of Irish residents felt increased hostility during the COVID-19 period.
According to Professor Ross Macmillan: “There were two changes in the COVID-19 era that were striking. One was the substantial increase in trust in government. The other was the substantial decrease in trust in people. Given that both are necessary for functional societies, COVID-19 has introduced a clear tension.”
During this time, health declined for large numbers of people and unhealthy behaviours such as limited exercise and outdoor activity, excess eating and alcohol consumption increased.
The PERSOCOV study has revealed that 40% of Irish residents either contracted or knew someone who had contracted COVID-19 with almost one quarter of respondents having contracted the disease themselves or had a member of their household or family fall victim.
Over half of the population (60%) feared contracting the disease. The stress and worry associated with contracting the disease, as well as an inability to access medical services during this time contributed to the overall decline in the population’s health.
Commenting on this decline, Professor Macmillan said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly been a huge source of stress for large segments of the Irish population and may have effects on mental health and social well-being for decades to come.”
There were significant changes in core values reported with 18-25-year olds valuing stimulation more in the COVID-19 period in comparison to 2018. Younger people also reported feeling a significant lack of power, which can be attributed to the curtailing of freedom and autonomy due to the restrictions and return to the family home.
Older generations reported a move away from traditional values to some degree.
While some studies suggest that people turn to religion in times of social crisis, this was not so in Ireland. The proportion of the population attending church on a weekly basis fell dramatically, particularly so amongst the youngest age groups who identified as religious. While much can be attributed to the closure of churches, this fall in church-based practice should have been mitigated somewhat as many congregations moved mass online.
However, the decline was most significant in the digitally native 18-25-year-old age group, while older generations appear to have embraced the virtual experience to some degree.
The PERSOCOV study reflects how COVID-19 restrictions were felt significantly by those who were already experiencing isolation pre-pandemic with over a quarter of participants having no place outside of their homes where they could communicate face-to-face with friends/neighbours during the lockdown.
It also highlights the financial difficulties encountered as a result of reduced working hours and job losses. Over a quarter (30%) of respondents indicated that there was no one they could turn to for financial help during this time, while almost 20% encountered difficulties when paying for daily expenses.
When assessing the impact on work and education, the study revealed that under one fifth of Irish residents continued to work as before with almost a third reporting that they were working from home during the month of April. Almost one third had experienced job losses due to the closure of businesses or firings.
The majority of those surveyed reported receiving either daily or weekly schoolwork from teachers, while 16% revealed that they had received little or no guidance from their children’s school.
According to Professor Michael Breen: “This study is among the first in the world to document in a strongly scientific way the personal experiences of the COVID-19 crisis in a given nation. The COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent public health restrictions are one of the most significant social experiences of the last 100 years – literally a once in a lifetime occurrence. Understanding the social and psychological implications are among the most pressing issues for governments and societies.”
Professor Macmillan added, “The survey is remarkable in showing just how variable people’s reactions and responses were to COVID-19. Some were very adaptable and quite creative in figuring out ways to manage activities and relationships of everyday life. Others became very marginalised and experienced serious hardship and deprivation. Understanding what distinguishes these groups will be critical to understanding both the short- and long-term impact of the crisis for Ireland."
Follow up interviews with those who participated in the survey will be conducted in 12 months time to determine the long-term implications of COVID-19 and the public health restrictions.
“The impact of this crisis varied across the nation. Our further analysis will look in detail at who was impacted, how they were impacted, and what effects those impact have had. Cross national comparisons with similar surveys which are being planned by colleagues across Europe will add an extra layer of knowledge and insight about the COVID-19 impacts, beyond just simple economics,” added Professor Breen.
The PERSOCOV Study is funded by the offices of the Vice-President for Research at Mary Immaculate College and the University of Limerick.