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The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Shifted the ‘Fear Focus’

The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Shifted the ‘Fear Focus’

Rebecca Brooks

anxious woman wearing mask with face lowered

The fears people had before the pandemic remain, but a recent study shows that the factors influencing them have changed in unexpected ways

If there’s one emotion that’s permeating our globe right now, it’s fear. An uncertain future and massive amounts of change are enough to evoke widespread anxiety, something brands and marketers must deeply understand in order to remain relevant to their target audiences.

In truth, these consumer sentiments are nothing new. Our research prior to the pandemic and other recent societal upheavals showed that people were already worried about, well, pretty much everything. What we found in our most recent study, by comparing pre-pandemic and current data, is that those fears remain, but their intensity and the factors influencing them have changed. This, in turn, is causing consumer behavior to take some unexpected paths.


Our data from December 2019 indicated that healthcare was a top concern among Americans of all ages. In fact, 30% of Gen Z and millennials and 48% of baby boomers cited it as their number one area of concern, topping out things such as personal finance and crime. The high cost of healthcare, the fragmented system in the United States, as well as questions about future healthcare models (e.g. Medicare for All, cessation of coverage for preexisting conditions) were driving this universal fear.

In our latest round of research, conducted in June, we found that healthcare still topped the list. However, the factors influencing it had shifted from cost and model concerns to the worry surrounding the ability to obtain necessary care. This is no surprise, as the pandemic has proved to be one of the largest challenges that the U.S. healthcare system has ever faced. Initial scrambles to build out capacity and avoid overwhelming hospitals led to pleas from officials for the public’s help in “flattening the curve.”


This situation shone a stark spotlight on the inadequacies of the system, fueling people’s fear that the current system cannot meet their healthcare needs and that they will have to postpone care. Forty-one percent of respondents said that the pandemic has left them worrying for their family’s health.

Micro vs. Macro

Last January, I wrote about how people’s concerns over their personal lives (micro) differed from their concerns over what was occurring in their communities or world as a whole (macro). Little did I know at that time the massive changes that would occur around the globe, which has underscored this dichotomy. Back before the pandemic, we found that people’s anxiety over the state of the world didn’t necessarily let those concerns permeate their everyday lives. In our latest study, as we collectively face COVID-19, this tension was illustrated in a very clear way. We found that overall optimism in the future has declined, although respondents generally still felt better about their immediate situation than they did about the state of the world. However, that dynamic may be shifting as the challenges surrounding disease, economic crisis and racial reckoning persist. Most Americans agree that there’s a transition afoot: 62% agreed that we are experiencing “a period of transformative political and economic change.”

Racial Inequality

Also transforming is the conversation surrounding inclusion, diversity and racial injustice, as the nation (and globe) grapples with systemic racism and public dissent. We definitely saw this come up in our research, as our summer 2020 respondents more markedly brought up and felt the impact of social justice issues. For this study, in order to better represent the views of people of color in our aggregated data, we oversampled among Asian Americans, Hispanic and Latinx people, and Black people.

First off, people of color were more likely to have experienced the brunt of the pandemic, either from the virus itself or the economic repurcussions. In addition, these groups illustrated a difference in overall fears. African American respondents expressed the most severe declines in optimism since December. They reported having a harder time trusting people, feeling less financially well-off, and feeling more like the system is stacked against them. Most strikingly, their faith that the future will be better took the biggest hit, down 17% since December. Among our overall respondents, we found a large increase in attention to racial justice and police brutality. In December, 18% and 9% of respondents said that these two issues were among their top three fears, while in June these numbers had jumped significantly to 34% (racial issues) and 24% (police brutality). The two related issues now round out the top five most-cited concerns, along with healthcare, the economy and personal finance.

Companies and brands are being called upon to fill a vacuum in social leadership. Consumers expect more from those taking a stand for social justice and are more approving of those that do. The key to success for brands seeking to be positive forces in society, beyond all else, is to listen.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash.

Rebecca Brooks is the founder and CEO of Alter Agents, a full-service market research company redefining research in the age of the promiscuous shopper.