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Before Pandemic, Outbreaks Least of Worries in Western Europe
Gallup Blog

Before Pandemic, Outbreaks Least of Worries in Western Europe

by Sofia Kluch

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, few residents of Western Europe likely ever expected to find themselves at the epicenter of a pandemic. In fact, just a few years ago, their concern about an outbreak of contagious disease took a relative back seat to all other issues Gallup asked them about. In all of the up to 14 countries surveyed in Western Europe in 2016, people at the time saw issues such as violence, terrorism and immigration as much more serious problems for their countries than an outbreak.

Please tell me whether you think each of the following is a serious problem or not a serious problem in your country.
% Serious problem
Overall Highest Lowest
% % %
Domestic violence 79 Portugal - 98 Germany - 65
Sexual assault 74 Portugal - 95 Finland - 56
Gang violence 68 Portugal - 93 Finland - 35
International terror 65 France - 95 Ireland - 14
Homegrown terror 62 France - 94 Ireland - 14
Current level of immigration 53 Malta - 86 Iceland - 17
Outbreak of a contagious disease 50 Portugal - 84 Iceland - 21
Gallup World Poll, 2016

In 2016, the European migration crisis and several high-profile terrorist attacks in France left those issues more top of mind for Western Europeans than the spread of contagious disease.

But fast forward four years, and today these countries are all experiencing the effects of COVID-19. Regardless of the degree of concern residents expressed in 2016, the reported cases are mounting, especially in France, where there was already substantial concern about an outbreak.

Countries in Western Europe All Affected by COVID-19
Please tell me whether you think each of the following is a serious problem or not a serious problem in your country.
Outbreak of contagious disease a serious problem in 2016 Current cases of coronavirus in 2020*
% #
Portugal 84 112
France 74 4,469
Belgium 53 689
Northern Cyprus 52 21
Netherlands 49 959
Denmark 49 827
Sweden 38 924
Switzerland 33 1,359
Finland 24 210
Iceland 21 138
* Cases as of March 17, 2020
Gallup World Poll, 2016

Older People, Women Saw Greater Threat From Disease Outbreak

Across these countries, certain populations registered a higher degree of concern about the spread of contagious disease. There is a strong relationship between age and the perceived threat from an outbreak of contagious disease. This is especially relevant in Europe, where the proportion of the population 65 and older is substantial and is at greatest risk in the current pandemic. Those aged 65 and older were significantly more likely than people in any other age group to report the outbreak of contagious disease as a serious problem for their countries.

Older Adults in Western Europe See Bigger Problem With Contagious Disease
Percentage reporting a contagious disease as a serious problem in their country
Serious problem
15-24 47
25-34 45
35-44 45
45-54 50
55-64 54
65+ 60
Gallup World Poll, 2016

Women were also significantly more likely than men to report infectious disease outbreaks as a serious problem. However, women were more likely than men in general to worry about all of the issues they were asked about.

Most Educated, Least Concerned

People with the highest reported education were likely to report the lowest level of concern about contagious diseases, with just over a third saying these are a serious problem -- compared with nearly double the percentage of Europeans who had completed elementary education or less. Higher education was also associated with less concern on other issues Gallup asked about. Higher education tends to be associated with younger populations across the countries surveyed.

Bottom Line

Human beings naturally react strongly to the most direct threat. While terrorists killed hundreds of people across European countries in 2016, terrorism was still considered a less serious problem than issues of violence against women -- sexual assault and domestic violence, where substantially more people are injured and killed annually. It is only when people come in contact with a novel disease that the risks of a contagious outbreak are brought front and center as a serious concern. For many in parts of Europe, that time is now, and it may feel like it is too late.

For complete methodology and specific survey dates, please review Gallup's Country Data Set details.

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