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Is coronavirus distracting us from other pressing social concerns?

There are growing concerns about the impact of the pandemic on other social objectives, such as tackling climate change and reducing inequality. While some past crises have boosted total charitable giving, Covid-19 may lead to donations being diverted from other causes.

Covid-19 is naturally at the forefront of our concerns right now, but there are several other pressing issues affecting our current and future wellbeing. Overarching social objectives featured in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include alleviating global poverty, improving the living conditions of millions of people in less developed countries, addressing the climate crisis and promoting environmental conservation more generally.

These objectives are interrelated with the pandemic – see, for example, the ‘Covid-19 Response’ to each of the SDGs (United Nations, 2020) and a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (2020). But the complex interrelationships between Covid-19 and other social concerns might be difficult to perceive for many citizens – and this may translate into focusing on the pandemic at the expense of other issues.

There is research evidence of significant short-term effects (during the spring of 2020), with the public’s concerns about individual and collective responses to Covid-19 partly displacing their concerns about other social objectives. What we don’t know yet is how persistent these effects will be or the likely magnitude of the substitution.

What do we mean by social concerns?

There is wide consensus that the majority of people care about the wellbeing of others and get a ‘warm glow’ from doing good things for others – see Andreoni (1989); Meier (2007); and Chaudhuri (2011) for reviews of what researchers call ‘pro-social’ behaviour. We also know that most people care about inequality and social welfare (Fehr and Firschbacher, 2003; Fehr and Schmidt, 1999; Bolton and Ockenfels, 2000).

Broadly speaking, these measures of social concerns are based on individual choices that affect the wellbeing of others, typically measured in the controlled environment of the experimental economics laboratory. This evidence is generated from well-studied ‘games’, with results that have been widely replicated across different groups of people (see Charness and Rabin, 2002, for a range of experiments; Henrich et al, 2001, for a cross-cultural study in small-scale societies; and Fehr and Schmidt, 2000, for a review).

An alternative measure of social concerns is donations to charities. Studies of this kind typically ask participants in a lab experiment to decide how to distribute a given amount of money between themselves and a charity recipient (Andreoni, 1990; Eckel and Grossman, 1996). Comparing the amount that an individual donates to a charity and what they keep for themselves gives a measure of their pro-social concerns.

These experiments find a sizeable proportion of participants showing pro-social concerns. This fits with day-to-day observation of charitable donations, volunteering and philanthropy.

Are social concerns affected by crises?

Researchers are more divided on the consistency of people’s social concerns. Some characterise individuals as belonging to set types, but there is growing evidence that social concerns vary according to our experiences in life. Social preferences measured by experiments change over time as a result of such factors as education (Jakiela et al, 2015), economic shocks (Fisman et al, 2015 for evidence after a financial crisis) and natural disasters and violence (Cassar et al, 2017; Voors et al, 2012; Horstmann et al, 2006; Horstmann and Scharf, 2008).

Similarly, charitable donations of households (as a measure of their social concerns) may vary over time – see, as an example, Figure 1.

Figure 1: Top donation cause areas by percentage of total donations (2016-2019)

Source: Charities Aid Foundation

Among the factors influencing charitable giving are calls for donations (appeals) and crises. For example, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an experimental study found that the amount of information and direct experience of the disaster affected the charitable giving of the experimental participants (Eckel et al, 2007). An intervention that involved having people recollect the hurricane (an experimental technique known as ‘priming’) had negative effects on both the probability of donation and the amount donated by subjects closer to the disaster: they donated considerably less than subjects who lived far away from the hurricane zone.

Further, studies using donation statistics find that disasters affect charitable giving. For example,

fundraising interventions associated with natural or humanitarian disasters (such as wars, political conflict and refugee crises) lift donations to charities related to the disaster. In addition, donations to other unrelated charities first increase after the donation appeal but decline shortly afterwards. This means that there are no changes in baseline donation levels to those other charities in the longer time horizon (Ottoni-Wilhelm et al, 2017).

Unexpected donations of households after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were positively correlated with planned future donations towards other social causes (Brown et al, 2012). The evidence from these studies suggests that donations to unexpected crises following natural disasters do not necessarily come at the cost of reduced donations to other charities.

But these results do seem to depend on the context. For crises where the donor has also been affected, results seem to differ: there is evidence that having experienced a health shock can generate a shift in donations, leading to a substitution towards donations to health-related charities at the expense of donations towards other social concerns (Black et al, 2020).

Is the pandemic modifying people’s social behaviour?

A number of research projects are monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on charitable organisations (see, for example, research at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Birmingham). There are also a number of recent studies using experimental methods addressing how Covid-19 affects people’s aggregate pro-social behaviour:

  • The emergence of the pandemic led to short-term reductions in trust. But compared with baseline data from 2019, altruism increased significantly, as measured by decisions about donations to other participants (Shachat et al, 2020).
  • Individuals that were intensively exposed to the crisis (where exposure is measured by a regional index comprising the prevalence of the virus, as well as measures of concern and negative sentiment expressed through internet searches and social media) showed an increase in anti-social behaviour, increasing theft among participants or intentionally reducing the monetary rewards of others (Lohmann et al, 2020).
  • Short-term results on the pro-social concerns of adolescents during three weeks of lockdown show stable levels of pro-social behaviour towards other people (differing in their degree of familiarity and their level of need or deservedness), as measured via hypothetical decisions about donations to others (van de Groep et al, 2020).
  • Information policies about Covid-19 show that having people exposed to examples of positive private role models (citizens stepping up to volunteer) or negative public role models (politicians being accused of using the pandemic for personal gain) increases donations to a charity (Abel and Brown, 2020).
  • Similarly, learning about the true mortality risk of older people increases the likelihood to donate (Abel et al, 2020).
  • In addition, priming people to think about Covid-19 increases pro-social behaviour towards other people, as measured in so-called ‘ultimatum’ and ‘dictator’ games (Guo et al, 2020).
  • Priming subjects on the narrative that the emergence of Covid-19 is linked to human destruction of wildlife increases donations to nature conservation (Shreedhar and Mourato, 2020).
  • More generally, although one might expect from previous evidence that the income shock associated with the pandemic might decrease pro-social behaviour (see, for example, Almunia et al, 2020, on the financial crisis), it has been shown that the collective threat posed by the pandemic increases trust (Li et al, 2020).

In addition, a recent study presents initial evidence specifically on the substitution effect that concerns related to the pandemic might have on other social priorities, including climate change and poverty alleviation (Blanco et al, 2020). By means of a controlled experiment on donation to charities, the focus of this study is on the short-term effects, presenting data for eight consecutive weeks during April/May 2020 for Austria.

The main result is that introducing the World Health Organization (WHO) Covid-19 Solidarity Response fund significantly reduces the sum of donations to the original eight charities. This derives from two effects:

  • Donations to the WHO fund are substantial, illustrating a high degree of concern about Covid-19 among participants. When the WHO fund is the only possible recipient, donations amount to over 50% of endowment; when the WHO fund is one out of nine possible recipients, donations are still 9.5% of endowment.
  • Irrespective of whether participants could or could not donate to the WHO fund in addition to the list of eight charities, aggregate donations were stable.

Overall, these results indicate that donations to diverse social concerns are partially substituted by donations to the WHO fund. Does this mean that the pandemic has fully replaced other concerns of participants in this study? This does not seem to be the case. The donations to the other charities were still positive. As a result, while there is a partial substitution of social concerns, it is not the case that Covid-19 is fully distracting individuals from other pro-social causes.

What is different with the Covid-19 crisis?

Why might we see a partial shift in donations towards Covid-19 relief charities at the expense of reduced donations to other social causes when there is prior evidence that crises do not affect donations to unrelated charities? With the evidence so far, it is not possible to pin this down to a causal mechanism. But the crisis caused by Covid-19 is certainly different from the comparatively localised crises, such as tsunamis or hurricanes, which have been previously studied.

Covid-19 is a shock that is directly or indirectly affecting people worldwide. The overwhelming global presence of Covid-19 in people’s everyday lives and their social media feeds, as well as within politics, is something fundamentally different to the disasters studied in the past.

The substitution results found for the pandemic are in line with previous findings for individual health problems, supporting a substitution in social concerns. For Covid-19, we see this substitution for the general population, even if not all individuals have fallen sick themselves. It could be that being personally affected by a crisis could be the trigger for substitution in social concerns and associated charitable donations.

 How reliable is the evidence on the substitution of social concerns due to Covid-19?

Much of the existing research on this topic is based on evidence from experimental methods. These studies have the advantage of providing early results from controlled environments. But these advantages come at the cost of uncertainty on whether the results are generally robust and would replicate in general populations and different cultural and geographical contexts.

Similarly, some studies on the impact of Covid-19 on social concerns lack a baseline before the pandemic. This brings limitations to interpretation of the causal effects. Studies using time series data tackle these issues (see, for example, this Economics Observatory article). But, by design, these studies can neither assess causal effects nor explanatory mechanisms, as they address naturally occurring settings where multiple potential confounding factors are at work.

Why does all this matter?

The accumulating results on how Covid-19 is affecting other social priorities are highly relevant in understanding support for diverse social priorities during the pandemic. This in turn informs policy design on social support during the crisis. In understanding the social acceptability of public policies to ‘build back better’, it is critical to provide empirical evidence on citizens’ support for diverse social priorities.

We interpret the results as illustrating society's desire to maintain support for climate action and poverty alleviation, alongside fighting Covid-19. This is consistent with the supranational policy for charitable action that was set in the spring of 2020. For example, the United Nations has explicitly introduced a Covid-19 relationship to each of the SDGs, highlighting the links between the pandemic, economic wellbeing and environmental conservation.

National governments have also followed this path of policy action. For example, there is the proposal for the European Union’s Green Deal and the implementation of the universal basic income in Spain (Arnold, 2020). Similarly, the scientific community has been calling for policy design for protecting the natural environment and tackling various inequalities (Hodges and Jackson, 2020; Rosenbloom and Markard, 2020; Thorp, 2020; von Braun et al, 2020).

Future research on this topic would benefit from multidisciplinary efforts to advance towards integrative research from different disciplines in aiding policy-making during the challenging times of the Covid-19 pandemic (see also Coyle, 2020).

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Authors: Natalie Struwe, Esther Blanco, Alexandra Baier
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