Survey finds majority of Canadians were confident they could self-isolate, distance for six months

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, 80 per cent of Canadians felt they could weather the storm — self-isolating or physically distancing themselves for six months or more — according to new research co-authored by a Dalhousie University professor.

The survey of nearly 2,000 Canadians from across the country was conducted between April 26 and May 1, providing a snapshot of public perception, beliefs and knowledge of the pandemic at the time. Its findings were published last week.

“Canadians really felt like they at least wanted to do whatever it took to keep themselves and their families and vulnerable members of the Canadian population safe,” said report co-author Jeanna Leigh Parsons, who teaches public health administration at Dalhousie University.

The survey found the pandemic negatively impacted the mental wellbeing of Canadians — even before case numbers were high.

Fifty-two per cent of survey respondents were concerned about access to health care and equipment, 45 per cent reported “pandemic stress” and 39 per cent said they were experiencing declining mental and emotional health.

“The impact of this was outside of infection rates,” said Parsons Leigh. “We need to be very attuned to not only supporting people’s physical health, but their social and mental health as well.”

Pamela Magee, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Nova Scotia chapter, said she’s unsurprised by the finding, adding that the vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly, are among the hardest hit.

Magee suggested Canadians may have overestimated their ability to cope with COVID-19 distancing requirements in the early days, because they didn’t know they’d still have to comply with them six months down the road.

“People think that its only here for a short term, it’s like a very bad flu and things are going to turn around and get better in a couple of weeks,” she explained.

“As we see the pandemic and the second wave impacting now, there isn’t that window of promise or reprieve from the pandemic. Perceptions are meeting and aligning with realty and the impact.”

Leigh Parsons agreed that’s possible, but said talk of a second wave of COVID-19 was already circulating when the survey was conducted.

The survey was conducted in partnership with University of Calgary, University of Toronto, St. Michael’s Hospital, McMaster University, Hamilton Health Services, and the University of British Columbia.

It found the vast majority of Canadians were confident in their understanding of the virus, with 88 per cent of respondents reporting they had “good to excellent knowledge” of how it is transmitted.

Sixty per cent also said they trusted Canadian news media for information on the pandemic, although Atlantic Canadians and Albertans were less likely to check news sources than Ontarians.

“In places like Ontario, where case counts were quite a bit higher, it seemed we were seeing indicators that Canadians were working harder to find accurate information,” Parsons Leigh said.

“We know from this study that Canadians are looking for credible information, they’re checking for information often and we have insight into where they’re looking for information.”

Those kinds of findings may help public health and government officials, she added, as they decide how to disseminate critical COVID-19 information in subsequent waves.

Tim Currie, director of the journalism school at the University of King’s College, said the pandemic and the survey results have reinforced that Canadian news media are “trusted sources of information.”

“I think this has been seminal time for news media outlets to report in the public interest,” Currie told Global News.

“I think the issues that crop up on an ongoing basis, ‘should I send my kids to school, should I send my kids trick-or-treating for Halloween,’ there’s almost a regular source of questions people have, and people are going to turn to the news media in order to figure out what to do.”

Parsons Leigh and her research colleagues are in the process of writing a second manuscript that will delve into COVID-19’s impact on different demographics, including people of colour, and various age groups, genders and different socioeconomic backgrounds. That research will be available next year.

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