Background: Since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, countries have been mirroring each other's policies to mitigate the spread of the virus. Whether current measures alone will lead to behavioral change such as social distancing, washing hands, and wearing a facemask is not well understood. The objective of this study is to better understand individual variation in behavioral responses to COVID-19 by exploring the influence of beliefs, motivations and policy measures on public health behaviors. We do so by comparing The Netherlands and Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium.
Methods and findings: Our final sample included 2,637 respondents from The Netherlands and 1,678 from Flanders. The data was nationally representative along three dimensions: age, gender, and household income in both countries. Our key outcome variables of interest were beliefs about policy effectiveness; stated reasons for complying with public rules; and changes in behavior. For control variables, we included a number of measures of how severe the respondent believed Covid-19 to be and a number of negative side effects that the person may have experienced: loneliness, boredom, anxiety, and conflicts with friends and neighbors. Finally, we controlled for socio-demographic factors: age, gender, income (categorical), education (categorical) and the presence of Covid-19 risk factors (diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, allergies). The dependent variable for each of the estimation models is dichotomous, so we used Probit models to predict the probability of engaging in a given behavior. We found that motivations, beliefs about the effectiveness of measures, and pre-pandemic behavior play an important role. The Dutch were more likely to wash their hands than the Flemish (15.4%, p<0.01), visit family (15.5%, p < .01), run errands (12.0%, p<0.05) or go to large closed spaces such as a shopping mall (21.2%, p<0.01). The Dutch were significantly less likely to wear a mask (87.6%, p<0.01). We also found that beliefs about the virus, psychological effects of the virus, as well as pre-pandemic behavior play a role in adherence to recommendations.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that policymakers should consider behavioral motivations specific to their country in their COVID-19 strategies. In addition, the belief that a policy is effective significantly increased the probability of the behavior, so policy measures should be accompanied by public health campaigns to increase adherence.