May 22, 2020 - Health

Coronavirus searches shift from health to economic fallout

Reproduced Schema analysis of Google Trends; Chart: Axios Visuals

Questions about the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic are beginning to overtake questions about the virus itself, according to a new analysis of Google search data from around the world.

Why it matters: Even with the global death toll rising, search data indicates that the coronavirus has become a fact of life for much of the world. Now, people have more questions about jobs, unemployment, furloughs and government aid.

How it works: Axios, Google Trends and research firm Schema analyzed more than 8,000 searches in six countries — the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, India and Singapore.

  • These are all top English-language searches, related to coronavirus, that begin with "what is/are" or "how to."

What we found: General knowledge searches, such as "what is the coronavirus." surged in each country in January and February as the virus began to spread.

  • But over the past several weeks, those queries have slowed.
  • In the U.S., Canada, Australia and Singapore, searches about topics like furloughs and unemployment — repercussions of necessary coronavirus shutdowns — are more likely to be top searches than questions about the virus or its spread.
  • More people in the U.S. are now searching "Facebook" than "coronavirus."

Great Britain's Google trends largely mirror trends in the U.S., except that searches about jobs and the economy have not yet surpassed the number of top searches for general knowledge about the virus.

  • British people may simply have fewer questions about how to stay afloat, because of the government's massive spending to cover large chunks of workers' salaries, Axios world editor Dave Lawler notes.
  • Britain was also the only nation that had a surge in Google queries related to volunteering and donating back to community.
  • "With so much of this dataset reflecting the negative impact of the outbreak, it was heartwarming to see these acts of kindness reflected in the data," Schema founder Christian Schmidt told Axios.

Between the lines: India's English-language searches don't reveal an uptick in economic questions, but they may have simply been lost in translation.

  • It could also be that the elderly and poor populations, who were eligible for the initial relief benefits offered in late March, are less likely to use Google — especially in English, said Jeff MacInnes, Schema's director of technology. And some common searches aren't framed as "how to" or "what is" questions.

What to watch: Changes in Google searches reflect local outbreak cycles, the types of governmental programs available to ease financial hardship as well as media coverage, experts say.

  • Singapore has suffered a second wave of coronavirus cases, and you can see two spikes in general-knowledge Google searches — each followed by upticks in economic questions.
  • There were also two surges in searches about masks for Singapore, one peaking in early February and the other in April.

What's next: Search trends tend to follow events on the ground, and aren't necessarily helpful for predicting outbreaks or other events, said Cuihua (Cindy) Shen an associate professor at UC Davis who studies social media and big data.

  • But social media might be. Shen has been working on a new study researching whether posts about coronavirus symptoms on the Chinese social media platform Weibo can predict new cases.
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