Perceptions of the seriousness of major public health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic in seven middle-income countries

Commun Med (Lond). 2023 Dec 21;3(1):193. doi: 10.1038/s43856-023-00377-8.


Introduction: Public perception of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to six other major public health problems (alcoholism and drug use, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, lung cancer and respiratory diseases caused by air pollution and smoking, and water-borne diseases like diarrhea) is unclear. We designed a survey to examine this issue using YouGov's internet panels in seven middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in early 2022.

Methods: Respondents rank ordered the seriousness of the seven health problems using a repeated best-worst question format. Rank-ordered logit models allow comparisons within and across countries and assessment of covariates.

Results: In six of the seven countries, respondents perceived other respiratory illnesses to be a more serious problem than COVID-19. Only in Vietnam was COVID-19 ranked above other respiratory illnesses. Alcoholism and drug use was ranked the second most serious problem in the African countries. HIV/AIDS ranked relatively high in all countries. Covariates, particularly a COVID-19 knowledge scale, explained differences within countries; statistics about the pandemic were highly correlated with differences in COVID-19's perceived seriousness.

Conclusions: People in the seven middle-income countries perceived COVID-19 to be serious (on par with HIV/AIDS) but not as serious as other respiratory illnesses. In the African countries, respondents perceived alcoholism and drug use as more serious than COVID-19. Our survey-based approach can be used to quickly understand how the threat of a newly emergent disease, like COVID-19, fits into the larger context of public perceptions of the seriousness of health problems.

Plain language summary

We were curious what people in different countries thought about the seriousness of COVID-19 compared to other health problems. We designed a survey, and hired YouGov, a survey research firm, to administer it in seven countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in early 2022. Respondents answered the questions on their computer, tablets, or smart phones. Their answers revealed that in most countries respiratory illnesses were perceived to be a more serious problem than COVID-19. In Africa people felt that alcoholism and drug use were also more serious than COVID-19. These findings are important because they show that people still care about the health problems they were facing before the pandemic, which is useful information for healthcare providers.