Poll raises alarm over what Canadians see as “reasonable” responses to COVID-19


As Canadians try to carry on with life under the COVID-19 outbreak, a nationwide Research Co. survey outlines disquieting discrepancies in how we feel about the current state of affairs and how we are actually behaving.

The country is keenly aware of the size of the problem. More than four in five Canadians (82%) consider the COVID-19 outbreak “a major crisis.” About one in seven (13%) call the outbreak “a minor crisis,” while only 3% of Canadians believe it is “not a crisis at all”

For comparison purposes, when Research Co. asked Canadians to assess opioid overdoses in October 2018, almost two thirds (64%) described the situation as a “major problem.” The proportion of Canadians who feel the same way about the COVID-19 outbreak is 18 points higher.

Residents of Atlantic Canada lead the entire country in considering the outbreak as a “major crisis” (92%), followed by Quebec (85%), British Columbia (82%) and Ontario (81%). The level of concern is slightly lower in Alberta (78%) and Manitoba and Saskatchewan (70%).

Women (85%), Canadians aged 55 and over (86%) and Canadians aged 35 to 54 (82%) are also near the top of the list when it comes to offering a grim appraisal of COVID-19. The numbers are lower for men (79%), and Canadians aged 18 to 34 (78%).

If we were measuring a specific policy matter, or government proposal, these numbers would point to consensus. However, what we are facing now is a health crisis that begs for unanimity to ensure that the spread of the virus is contained. It is on a question related to our own behaviour that the views of Canadians are nowhere near the 3% threshold of those who openly disagree with calling the outbreak “a crisis.”

Health authorities across the country have been extremely busy detailing specific practices that Canadians should abide by for their own health and the safety of entire communities.

We have been told to avoid visiting elderly relatives because it is impossible to know if a person who seems healthy is carrying the virus. However, more than one in five Canadians (22%) believe this activity is “reasonable” at this stage. Residents of Ontario (27%) and Manitoba and Saskatchewan (26%) are more likely to believe it is fine to visit elderly relatives right now. In contrast, only 12% of Atlantic Canadians consider this behaviour “reasonable.”

Some municipalities have allowed restaurants to remain open, albeit with guidelines related to seating capacity and space between patrons. Canadians have been told to order food to go or simply eat all their meals at home. Still, 15% of Canadians think it is “reasonable” to eat inside restaurants at this point—a proportion that rises to 18% among men.

Many gyms and fitness facilities have closed their doors, but others are still offering some services. We found that 12% of Canadians think it is reasonable to continue visiting the gym or the yoga studio at this point. The proportion grows to 15% among men, Albertans and Quebecers.

Canadians have also been told to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. We found that 13% of Canadians think this activity is reasonable. Albertans and Quebecers are more likely to feel this way (16% and 15% respectively), while only 10% of British Columbians and Atlantic Canadians concur.

There is even more resistance to the idea of holding a gathering of 10 people or fewer. Three in ten Canadians (30%) believe this is a reasonable behaviour right now, including 41% of those aged 18 to 34 and 38% of Albertans. On a regional basis, British Columbia is at the bottom, but at a still worrisome level of 26%.

In this early phase of self-seclusion and social distancing, there are some differences in the way Canadians are looking at the gravity of the situation. Only one in 33 Canadians think COVID-19 is “not a crisis at all,” but certain behaviours that we have already been told to forgo are regarded as “reasonable” by a significantly higher proportion of residents.

More than two in five Canadians aged 18 to 34, and more than a third of men and residents of Alberta, seemingly have no qualms in holding a gathering of 10 people or fewer—with no clear way of knowing if one of the invitees is carrying the virus.

Most Canadians appear to be ready for a long battle, with 72% believing the worst is “definitely” or “probably” ahead of us when it comes to COVID-19. It is evident that Canadians have realized just how serious the outbreak is, but there are still some residents who think somehow, the recommendations from health authorities and governments do not apply to them.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted March 19–20, 2020, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.