To hope or not to hope: the chronicles of national pessimism amidst the global pandemic

“Torture!” Lara, a COVID-19 survivor in her late thirties, exclaimed with a slight chuckle, slight notes of sarcasm ringing in her voice.

When asked what her very first association was when she heard COVID-19 and the pandemic, “torture” was the first and only word Lara uttered. The word summarized the overwhelming sense of pessimism about the quick economic recovery sweeping across the nation.

What is the nation’s perception of the economy?

As the pandemic struck the nation, Elucd followed its impact on Americans closely. Our digital polling methodology yielded not only real-time data into the economic situation of the country as a whole, but also granular insights into its impact on racial and ethnic groups. Some of the participants in our polls volunteered to speak with us personally and share their side of the story about how the pandemic changed every aspect of their daily lives. They revealed personal stories of struggle and victory, humanizing the sentiment data and revealing the true narrative behind the facts. Lara is one such public polling respondent, who shared her survival story with us.

As we tracked data on the nation’s sentiment about the pandemic’s effects over the last 3 months (March - May), the growing pessimism was evident. It corroborated with the progression of the virus.

The declining optimism also reflected a correlation between the state of the stock market and the nation’s perception of how well the economy was doing. Whether people looked up to the market to form an understanding of the economic situation, or whether the stock market reflected national sentiment about economic recovery - there was a clear yet delayed relationship between how the two influenced - and even drove - each other as the pandemic progressed.

What we also discovered was that the optimism about a quick economic recovery had significant perceptual disparities based on race and ethnicity. Black/African-American respondents such as Lara, have been consistently the most pessimistic about the chances of the economy bouncing back to normal in the near future.

Over the 3 months of March, April and May when the pandemic was at its peak, they have consistently rated confidence in recovery of the economy below a 3 out 5 (on a confidence scale of 1 to 5, where 1 represents no confidence and 5 indicates high confidence). Mid-April especially saw a sharp drop in confidence for all Americans. “It’s going to be hard at first. I work at a hospital, and even for my job, they are talking of laying off people,” said Lara after a long pause.

Why do people leave their homes?

The perception of the economic situation in the country was not the only thing that varied significantly by race and ethnicity - the priorities and day-to-day necessities concerning the American public varied, too. And this was especially true for the reasons that drove people’s decision to leave the safety of their shelters amidst the all-time infection rate high.Our data uncovers the most popular reason for people to venture out of their house has been to buy groceries and essentials, followed by spending time outdoors and exercise.

However, this reality has not been the same for everyone.

For Black/African-American and Hispanic/Latino respondents, the need to leave home lies elsewhere, and their priorities differ. The second most popular reason for them to go out , in addition to (and even before) stocking up on essentials and groceries,  has also been going to work. This was true for Lara -- she was the first in her family to contract the virus as she continued working in the midst of the pandemic; soon after, her husband and son started showing symptoms of COVID-19, and her husband was swiftly taken to the ICU due to a more severe case of infection. “We are actually COVID-19 survivors. Me and my family got it. I was just kind of scared because I didn't know exactly what to do.”

How has the pandemic affected people’s financial capacity?

Elucd also tracked changes in people’s ability to pay for their mortgage and rent around the nation. The pandemic affected people in different ways: some didn’t experience much change and had a smoother transition to remote work, with their ability to pay rent and mortgage remaining intact.

However, that wasn’t the case for everyone. For some, the pandemic brought on concerns about making the ends meet and restrictions in financial capabilities. Over the 3 months, close to a quarter of the population (25%) consistently reported their need to tap into savings to pay rent and mortgage.

Lara happened to be one of those hit harder by the pandemic than others. As a therapist in a public hospital, she didn’t experience reliable support from her employer when she had to take a leave due to her illness. So when the virus put her family members’ health at a serious risk, they had to additionally face another complication at the same time: insufficient income to ensure a safe shelter to quarantine in.

Unemployment or a cut in hours or salary as a result of this crisis has been an unfortunate reality for many. In the beginning of April, close to 23% of the American population reported being unemployed and 18% reported salary cuts. These numbers dropped as of May (unemployment fell to 19%, salary cuts were down to 15%) but did not see a substantial decline.

This trend was inverted and stark for the Hispanic/Latino community as compared to the national average. The unemployment rose for them from April (32%) to May (35%). A similar trend was observed among Black/African-American respondents - a 8% increase in unemployment from April (18%) to May (26%).

“We were in the process of buying a house, and the house fell through because we didn’t have enough income to close on the house,” says Lara. “We had to downsize to a two-bedroom.” At the end of the day, she was grateful to have a roof over her head as the global crisis continued to develop.

What next?

While it seemed easy to begin to lose hope as the pandemic completely altered people’s daily lives, there were some changes that inspired hope, but often got lost in the constant negative influx of appalling news. It took time to begin to notice those changes amidst the cacophony of the media emphasizing the facts with negative connotations. “You hear people talking about all the deaths, but not about people who recover from it,” pondered Lara.

To Lara, observing the silver lining came more naturally than to others. Whether it was families coming together again and spending more quality time together due to quarantine mandates, or local communities supporting local businesses that struggle to stay afloat because of the economic stagnation, or even new opportunities for people to voice their concerns and thoughts on the situation, there were some changes that were for the good, even though they came from something bad. “I hope some changes don’t go away,” she said. “People are just so much more… courteous.”

It remains to be seen how people around the country will look back at these troubling times, how they will choose to remember them, and what lessons they will learn. In the meantime, Elucd continues to track how people feel and think about how the COVID-19 pandemic moved them.

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