Hoosiers have been living in a new world in the month and a half since Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a public health emergency for COVID-19, but a new survey reveals only about 1 in 5 Hoosiers thought this situation was even possible.
The results of a new Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute survey gauging people’s attitudes towards the environment and extreme weather found that as early as December 2019, only 18% of Hoosiers believed their family would be impacted by a major disease outbreak within the next decade.
The Hoosier Life Survey’s co-lead author, ERI assistant research scientist Matthew Houser, said 10,000 Indiana residents were asked what crisis or event they expected and how likely they thought their family would be affected by a government shutdown, economic crisis, an extreme weather event and a major disease outbreak.
About 56% of Hoosiers said an economic crisis would affect their family. Nearly half said they would be affected by a government shutdown. Extreme weather occupied the minds of about 43% of respondents.
Only 18% of Hoosiers said a major disease outbreak was likely to affect their family within the next decade. A seemingly prescient 4% said it was very likely.
“Never did we imagine that somehow, we’d be able to say, well, a lot of people got it wrong,” said Houser. “But it’s pretty clear from these results that people weren’t anticipating a major disease outbreak to cause an economic crisis.”
At least 12,000 Hoosiers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Indiana, impacting every county in the state. More than 630 people have died of the disease, and more fatalities are expected.
International shutdowns to stop the virus’ spread have greatly impacted economies across the globe, including here in the Crossroads of America.
The researchers also looked at how different groups of people in the state expected the crises to affect them. They first looked at the state capital.
Indianapolis and Marion County have been the state’s hotspot for COVID-19. More than 4,000 Hoosiers there have tested positive for the disease, nearly 3.5 times the amount of the second-largest infection rate, located in Lake County.
Yet people living in Indianapolis were less likely to expect a major disease outbreak than all other areas of the state. An average of 15% of Indianapolis residents believed their families would be affected by a major disease outbreak in the next decade, compared to 19% in the rest of the state.
The researchers also found that income shaped peoples’ expectations of how likely and to what extent a major outbreak would affect them.
“We saw that people with lower income across the state, but particularly in metro Indianapolis, were much more likely to expect to be harmed by a major disease outbreak,” said Houser. “In general, they expected things to go worse for them and their family compared to middle- and high-income households.”
In metro Indianapolis, 10% of middle- to high-income households felt a major disease outbreak was likely, while 27% of low-income households believed it could happen.
“To me, what’s really behind all this is the reality that people with lower income in the state are less able to buffer themselves against any number of threats, really, and they know it,” said Houser.
About 21% of all Hoosiers households have an income of less than $25,000 a year. Lower-income families have borne the brunt of changes caused by the disease.
Many jobs seen as low-skill and menial before the pandemic, like grocery store worker and delivery person, have now been elevated to essential status and are expected to operate as normal, exposing them the risk of contracting COVID-19.
“That was impactful to me, to see this higher level of awareness of their own vulnerability among lower-income households and just underlined to me the need for policy at the city and state level to help lower-income households deal with things that people with slightly higher incomes really don’t need to worry about as much because of their resources,” said Houser.
The survey also found out how Hoosiers felt about several issues, including their knowledge of extreme weather, how they feel about climate change and who they trust for that information.
About 75% of Hoosiers expressed belief that climate change is happening, although there is a disagreement about the cause. About 78% of Hoosiers believe humans play at least some role in causing climate change, 10% believe it is caused entirely or mostly by natural causes and 11% reported being uncertain about the cause of climate change.
The study found that few Hoosiers feel well-informed about extreme weather events, which are projected to increase as climate change worsens.
Older Hoosiers said they were more confident about their knowledge of extreme weather. Hoosiers 74 years and older reported feeling very informed about extreme weather risks and policies to prepare for them, while only about 18% of people between ages 18 and 22 shared that sentiment.
Hoosiers also reported trusting their own judgment more than other information sources and having the most distrust of local and state public officials.
Houser said he hopes public officials use these findings to shape future policy.
“What I hope is that this sort of pulls back the curtain of Indiana public opinion about climate change. I think there’s a tendency to view Indiana as this super conservative red state, and, in consequence, one that is not ready to act on climate change. And, to me, what these results begin to strongly suggest is that, no, that’s not the case,” said Houser.
ERI researchers said they will delve deeper into the survey results and release a series of policy reports in the coming months.