Opinion: if we want to understand the populace, we need to concentrate on the feelings around the crisis and not the so-called beliefs

Last week, the Department of Health provided new snapshot data on the pandemic that was widely reported in the media. A cursory look through a number of platforms shows that the story was framed in terms of a "worrying belief" amongst the public that the worst of the pandemic was over. 

RTÉ News reported that there was "concern over public belief that worst of virus is over". According to the article, Dr Tony Holohan "said new research showed 43% of people believe that the worst is over, and he said this causes a challenge in getting the message out." The Journal reported that "a poll of 1,270 people today indicated that some 43% of people believe that the worst of the Covid-19 crisis in Ireland is over, giving cause for concern among members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET)." 

In The Irish Times, it was reported that "research conducted for the Department of Health shows that 43 per cent of the population believe that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is over, the highest figure recorded so far during the pandemic." The Irish Independent headlined their piece on the research as "Public asked to 'stay the course’ as nearly half believe worst of crisis is over".

What's the problem? The actual question posed to people by Amarach Research asked what they feel to be the case and not what they believe to be the case in relation to the pandemic. This is a crucially important distinction, but one wholly overlooked in the reporting of the research. 

From a sociological point of view, a belief is a personally held position based on our capacity to process information, and arrive at a viewpoint that may then guide our actions. For example, I believe that it is best to rely on information from trusted sources, and comply with their guidelines for action in a situation where the pandemic virus poses a threat to my family and community.

In contrast, feelings are a bit more slippery. Feelings express our emotional states and our emotional reactions to experiences and events. For example, I feel a sense of sadness and confusion during the current pandemic crisis because nothing seems "normal" anymore. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke show, Dr Philip Hyland from Maynooth University on a new Covid-19 psychological survey

So let's think about Amarach's Public Opinion Tracker findings and interpret them through the lens of feelings, which is what people were asked about, and not through the lens of beliefs. In mid-March 2020, few of us felt that the worst was behind us, and we mostly felt that the worst was yet to come. That response was explicable given the speed with which everyday life changed in the latter part of March 2020 and the sense that a massive national emergency was underway. That message was continuously reinforced by the Government across a range of media platforms.

Lockdown continued throughout the month of April 2020 but, as the scenarios of an overwhelmed health service and high numbers of casualties (as seen by what happened in Italy) failed to materialise, many of us began to breathe a sigh of relief and to modify our feelings of horror, dread and fear accordingly. 

The number of people who felt the worst still lay ahead began to decline significantly in late April, and the point where those who thought  the worst was behind us exceeded the number who thought the worst was still ahead was reached on April 30th. Note however, that during all this time, the majority of people nevertheless thought that the worst of the pandemic was happening now. 

None of us knows, which makes it difficult if not impossible to form a belief about likely scenarios

As May 5th approached, more of us began to feel more hopeful about the situation. This is not surprising, since the Government’s own messaging shifted to preparations for the "re-opening of the country." It may simply be a case of the triumph of hope over adversity that has encouraged more of us to feel that the worst may be over.  But let’s remember that none of these perfectly explicable feelings are rooted in any sense in firmly held beliefs. After all, none of us currently has any clarity on what the future holds. 

Data must always been seen in the wider social context. In this instance, reporting on the population's beliefs proves to be a serious misnomer. If one thing has become clear in the last two months, it is the many "unknown unknowns" of the COVID 19 virus, from its provenance to its trajectory, to the actual as opposed to modelled prevalence in the population, to the optimal methodology to curb its spread. Experts from a range of academic research disciplines are not in absolute agreement on any of these questions. 

Mostly, all of us have complied with advisories that are just that, advisories that in time may or may not prove to be correct. None of us knows, which makes it difficult if not impossible to form a belief about likely scenarios. If the Department of Health and media outlets want to understand the populace, they ought to have reported on the feelings that were actually elicited in the survey and not the so-called beliefs.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ