Blog Post

Social distancing: did individuals act before governments?

Using online searches for restaurants as a proxy to assess whether and to what extent individuals were practicing social distancing before strict lockdown measures, we identify substantial differences between countries. In some countries, including Denmark and Portugal, searches for restaurants were considerably down before restaurant restrictions were put in place. Countries where social distancing started earlier, regardless of when policies were enacted, can expect a flatter coronavirus curve.

By: Date: April 7, 2020 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

Behavioural change is a fundamental determinant of the spread of an epidemic. Toxvaerd (2020) showed how behavioural parameters change predictions in standard epidemiological models. Even when individuals are considered in models to be purely self-interested, they are bound to engage in some degree of social distancing by choice and thus help reduce the growth rate of the number of infections, compared to that predicted by epidemiological models. Toxvaerd (2020) suggests social distancing is greater when the disease is more contagious and health effects more severe.

Individuals act on the basis of their beliefs about how contagious a disease is and about how severe its effects are. Moreover, they are not necessarily self-interested, but might consider how their actions affect others. Differences in information, risk-aversion and self-interest, and expectations about how well prepared the health system is to deal with the inflow of patients, will lead to different choices in terms of the degree of voluntary social distancing. 

We used Google Trends to identify when individuals started engaging meaningfully in social distancing in different European countries. We used searches for the topic ‘restaurant’ because visiting a restaurant reflects a choice to leave the house, as opposed to trips people might be required to make[1].

We compared each day of the week in February and March 2020 with the same day of the week in January. For example, average Mondays in February and March were compared with average Mondays in January, with the average of January Monday searches set to 100. We plotted a seven-day moving average of this index to show trends and reduce weekly seasonality. The use of this moving average means values depicted lag actual reductions in searches. We plotted the same series for 2019, which show that February and March average searches are slightly above January. Peaks around events such as Valentine’s Day and Carnival (in Portugal) are noticeable. 

Figure 1 shows the results for three countries, and notes in each case the start date of strict lockdown measures, and, where relevant, the date of implementation of initial measures that restricted opening hours or numbers of clients. 

Figure 1: Searches for ‘restaurants’ from 8 January to 30 March in Denmark, France, Spain (January average = 100)

Source: Bruegel based on Google Trends.

Figure 1 shows significant differences between the three countries. Denmark was one of the first countries to impose strict limits on social gatherings but even before, individuals started to reduce their social contacts. A downward trend in restaurant-related searches is visible for Denmark starting on mid-February. These factors might have contributed to the controlled growth of cases in Denmark, whose prime minister on 30 March hinted at the possibility of gradually re-opening the country.

This pattern is entirely different from the same variable plotted in 2019, where searches did not decrease in February/March compared to January, and a Valentine’s Day peak was observable.

For France and Spain, the decrease in searches for restaurants before lockdown measures were implemented was smaller. In Spain, there was a sudden 25% drop three days before full closure, most likely partly related to the announcement made on 14 March and to the critical situation in Madrid. 

Figure 2: Searches for ‘restaurants’ from 8 January to 30 March in Italy, Portugal, Germany (January average = 100)

Source: Bruegel based on Google Trends.

Figure 2 shows that in Italy, there was already a decrease in searches for ‘restaurants’ before national lockdown, most likely partly related to the dire situation and restrictions in Lombardy and to the fact the announcement preceded implementation. 

In Portugal, compared to January, a decrease in the number of searches for restaurants was visible from 11 March, eight days before a national lockdown was put in place, and the decrease accelerated as announcements on restrictions were made. A comparison with 2019 is made difficult by Carnival. For Germany, a reduction in searches was observable more days before lockdown but advanced more gradually, potentially because of state-by-state implementation of measures. 

A policy outlier, showed in Figure 3, is Sweden, where no similarly strict measures are in place. There was still a considerable drop in searches, though searches in Sweden remain above the post-lockdown levels registered in other European countries. 

Figure 3: searches for ‘restaurants’ from 8 January to 30 March in Sweden (January average = 100)

Source: Bruegel based on Google Trends.

Considerable differences in observance of lockdowns even before they formally took effect will contribute to different evolutions of the spread of the disease in different countries. When modelling infection curves, it is relevant to consider these voluntary actions, which took place ahead of required distancing. 

Figure 4 shows the average of indexed searches in the day, three days, five days and seven days before introduction of national restaurant closures. Some countries already had partial restrictions in place, as shown in the charts above, which should be kept in mind when making comparisons:

Figure 4: Searches for restaurants vs. January average (100), 7, 5, 3 and 1 days before nationwide restaurant closures

Source: Bruegel based on Google Trends.

In the UK, where strict measures were implemented only on 23 March, the preceding week’s daily searches were on average 30% lower than in January.

The figures show that even in the absence of government action, if individuals are informed about risk, they seem to choose to engage in social distancing (though reduced restaurant visits do not necessarily mean people were not gathering in other settings). As governments made announcements, people started engaging in social distancing, even before implementation. In countries where government action lags, individuals can promote distancing to help curb disease progression (with economic costs), if they are aware of the risks.  

However, without an encompassing government response and appropriate social measures, individuals will be more susceptible to health risks since even if they avoid outside leisure, they are required to leave their homes to work and secure an income.

[1] We focus on ‘restaurant’ as a topic, not as a search term, which means the values should reflect whenever individuals search for any restaurant.

References

Toxvaerd, Flavio (2020) ‘Equilibrium Social Distancing’, Cambridge Working Papers in Economics: 2021, available at https://www.inet.econ.cam.ac.uk/working-paper-pdfs/wp2008.pdf


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

The Challenges of the Post-Pandemic Agenda

This opinion piece has previously been published in Project Syndicate. PARIS – There is a growing possibility that the COVID-19 crisis will mark the end of the growth model born four decades ago with the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, China’s embrace of capitalism, and the demise of the Soviet Union. The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of […]

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 28, 2020
Read article More on this topic
 

Opinion

Can households in the European Union make ends meet?

Half the households surveyed by Eurostat see themselves as unable to find the resources they would need to cope with an unexpected expense within a month, estimated by experts at €375 in the case of Greece.

By: Maria Demertzis, Marta Domínguez-Jiménez and Annamaria Lusardi Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: July 24, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Blog Post

Having the cake, but slicing it differently: how is the grand EU recovery fund allocated?

The European Commission’s original allocation mechanism really favoured lower-income countries and to a large extent was based on pre-COVID economic data. The modification adopted by the European Council gives more consideration to the country size and the adverse economic impact of COVID-19. As a consequence, by using the Commission’s May 2020 economic forecasts, I estimate that only Germany and France will get more grants from the EU’s recovery fund compared to the Commission’s original proposal, while other countries will get less.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 23, 2020
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

Government-guaranteed bank lending: beyond the headline numbers

Loan guarantees have been a major part of the COVID-19 support packages offered by European governments to companies. The actual take-up numbers so far follow very different patterns from the headline announcements, and might allay early concerns about single market distortions caused by the different sizes of packages in different countries.

By: Julia Anderson, Francesco Papadia and Nicolas Véron Date: July 14, 2020
Read article Download PDF
 

Policy Brief

Greening the recovery by greening the fiscal consolidation

In the wake of COVID-19, some economic recovery policies will help green the economy – for example, energy renovation of buildings. But there are limits to the share of stimulus that can be explicitly green. The European Union should therefore also green the fiscal consolidation by setting out the path to much higher carbon prices than today. This would guide investment and provide revenues to help the fiscal consolidation.

By: Ben McWilliams, Simone Tagliapietra and Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate, Finance & Financial Regulation Date: July 8, 2020
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

An EU budget for Europe's future with Johannes Hahn

How do we make the EU fit for future?

Speakers: Zsolt Darvas, Johannes Hahn and Mehreen Khan Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: July 7, 2020
Read article More on this topic
 

Opinion

Credible emerging market central banks could embrace quantitative easing to fight COVID-19

Emerging economies are fighting COVID-19 and the economic sudden stop imposed by the containment and lockdown policies, in the same way as advanced economies. However, emerging markets also face large and rapid capital outflows as a result of the pandemic. This column argues that credible emerging market central banks could rely on purchases of local currency government bonds to support the needed health and welfare expenditures and fiscal stimulus. In countries with flexible exchange rate regimes and well-anchored inflation expectations, such quantitative easing would help ease financial conditions, while minimising the risks of large depreciations and spiralling inflation.

By: Gianluca Benigno, Jon Hartley, Alicia García-Herrero, Alessandro Rebucci and Elina Ribakova Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 6, 2020
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

EU recovery plans should fund the COVID-19 battles to come; not be used to nurse old wounds

In its proposed Recovery Fund, the European Commission uses allocation criteria mainly linked to infection rates and past economic performance. To foster an efficient economic rebound post COVID-19 crisis, we propose instead to allocate funds through a forward-looking approach based on specific industrial and economic structure of EU regions.

By: Carlo Altomonte, Andrea Coali and Gianmarco Ottaviano Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 6, 2020
Read article Download PDF More on this topic
 

Policy Contribution

The financial fragility of European households in the time of COVID-19

The concept of household financial fragility emerged in the United States after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. It grew out of the need to understand whether households’ lack of capacity to face shocks could itself become a source of financial instability.

By: Maria Demertzis, Marta Domínguez-Jiménez and Annamaria Lusardi Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 2, 2020
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

Impact and additionality assessment in the time of COVID-19

Understanding the impact and additionality of policy interventions.

Speakers: Ugo Albertazzi, Benoit Campagne, Andrea Conte, Zsolt Darvas, Maria Demertzis, Francesco Di Comite, John Earle, Matteo Falagiarda, Áron Gereben, Helmut Kraemer-Eis, Hans Peter Lankes, Iana Liadze, Andrew McDowell, Nicola Pochettino, Debora Revoltella, Mattia Romani, Simone Signore, Natacha Valla, Georg Weiers and Marcin Wolski Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 30, 2020
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

The need for market-based finance after COVID-19

How do COVID-19-caused financial dislocations inform policy responses?

Speakers: Maria Demertzis, Gabriel Makhlouf and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 29, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Podcast

Podcast

Redefining Europe’s role after the Covid-19 Pandemic

How will the Covid 19 crisis change the role of the EU in Europe and the world?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 25, 2020
Load more posts