“3 in 5 Singaporeans fearful of contracting Wuhan virus”: The limits of public surveys and perceptions

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Even though the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has understandably stoked anxieties in Singapore, the lack of scientific knowledge about the SARS-like virus and its rapid spread has been matched – in this country – by a lack of knowledge about how the public perceives, understands, and communicates about the virus as well as the (desired) government response. Opinion surveys may provide some descriptive information, yet in the context of present and future public health emergencies we ought to test the extent to which Singaporeans possess factual information, to identify how they receive and share information, and to ultimately disseminate important advisories (and stem misinformation) more effectively.

A survey by United Kingdom-based research firm YouGov Omnibus (Yahoo! News, Jan. 29) reported a few top-line proportions, based on a sample of 1,013 Singaporeans (note that there is no mention or evaluation of the research or data collection methodology and no description of the sample and indication of whether it is representative):

  • 59 per cent of respondents were “very scared” or “fairly scared” of contracting the virus (the other options were “not very scared”, “not at all scared”, or undecided);
  • 58 per cent think the government is doing “about the right amount” to contain the virus (the other options are “not doing enough”, “doing too much”, or undecided); and
  • 84 per cent agree that incoming flights from Wuhan should be stopped, and 43 per cent agree that all Chinese travellers in the country should be quarantined.

For a start, a supplementary comment by YouGov Omnibus – that “it is clear that fears of the (Wuhan) virus are shared across age groups, and a significant amount believe that more governmental measures can be taken” – does not seem to quite align with the survey findings per se. Perhaps the focus is on the 35 per cent of respondents who think that the government is not doing enough, but: First, the range of views on the government’s response is likely to vary beyond the four reductive categories; second, it is not clear if the respondents are necessarily cognisant of how the government has acted, and if their awareness is accurate in the first place; and third, public perception may not be as important as the expertise of healthcare or medical professionals.

In other words, a particular action may be unpopular or deemed by the public to be not quite enough, but be actually in line with standards accepted by professionals around the world.

With a survey like this, it may be both useful and interesting to first test how much the respondents know about the virus and the present situation. The research firm can then present the aforementioned proportions based on a respondent’s knowledge to see how the results vary. In addition to or beyond the survey, we could also look to better study how information is received and shared – especially through open and closed social media platforms – because these platforms increasingly shape knowledge formation and can subsequently be adopted by government agencies to better disseminate critical updates.

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