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The Human Response to COVID-19: Searching for Answers

Analysing Google trends to examine how lockdown, isolation and the reality of pandemic have changed


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Chris Brownlie

3 years ago | 4 min read

In this article I’ll be investigating Google search data. The analysis will look at what we as a society are searching for more often and how it reflects our new reality.

The Data

All the data presented here was downloaded from the Google Trends website which shows, for any given search term, how often it has been searched for, over time.

Note that the data for any specific search term is given as an index, with 100 being the most traffic ever received for that search term. This means that two graphs cannot be compared as they do not show actual search numbers and are rather a reflection of how the popularity changes over time.

All graphs were produced using the R programming language

The Virus Itself

To begin with, we can look at how searches for the term ‘coronavirus’ have grown over the last year, worldwide.

This can be used as a proxy for the spread of the virus itself, although it may be more accurate to say it reflects the spread of panic instead.

One interesting observation is that the first known case of COVID-19 occurred in November 2019, yet there was no indication of increased Google searches until mid-late January.

This is likely due to the fact that the first case outside of China only occurred on 13th January (in Thailand). Google is one of the many websites blocked in mainland China by the government so is not used by Chinese citizens. As the virus did not become an international concern until late January, this is when the number of searches began to increase significantly.

Panic Buying

One of the first, most visible responses to the pandemic was the wave of panic buying that spread through many countries. This has lead to widespread shortages of popular items and caused issues for shoppers and businesses alike. The most well known, and confusing, of these is toilet paper.

Despite no evidence of a shortage and no link between the virus and toilet paper, panic buyers have been purchasing toilet paper in droves. This phenomenon has also been reflected in Google search trends:

The same can also be seen for other staple products:

As well as specific products, our methods of obtaining food have also had to adapt to living in lockdown and social distancing. Recent weeks have seen a skyrocketing demand for home delivery services, again this can be seen in the level of search interest over time:

All of these graphs show just how unprecedented these levels of demand are. It is unsurprising that many retailers are facing shortages of products and customers are becoming increasingly worried, which in turn is fuelling further stocking up.

This has lead to many supermarkets and suppliers hiring significant numbers additional staff and hopefully this will enable them to cope with this surge and then adapt to the temporary new status quo of mostly online grocery shopping.

Living in Lockdown

In response to the pandemic, a significant proportion of the world’s population is being asked to stay at home as much as possible. In many cases, businesses are being forced to close in order to encourage people not to leave the house and in some countries a rigorous lockdown is in place.

All this means that more and more people are having to adjust to living their entire life from their own home, which is not something that the majority of people have had to deal with in the past. During this difficult transition, it is natural to turn to Google to help us adapt.

To begin with, we are all having to learn new skills when it comes to personal hygiene…

Cutting your own hair isn’t the only way that people are having to adapt to keep up appearances:

And this is inevitably bringing with it some unfortunate consequences for gyms:

You can see on this graph the ‘new year boom’ that gyms benefit from as people aim to achieve their new year resolution. While some of the downturn from February onwards is inevitably the hangover from this, you can compare the lows to this time last year and see that the virus has had an impact.

Unsurprisingly, another way in which many of us are taking advantage of having to stay inside to do some home improvements.

While all of these productive activities are undoubtedly seeing a rise in popularity, we all need to unwind to. This is also reflected in what we search for on Google:

Note that this graph has a different timescale and shows trends over the last 5 years. This was important here due to the clear cycle of a spike in popularity around Christmas every year. Despite this regular pattern you can also see that the popularity has shot up again in the last month, which is unprecedented and shows that perhaps some of us are finding this new status quo a bit boring…

Another way to pass the time of course is just to get wonderfully drunk:

Socially Distant Communication

Finally, another area of life which we are adapting to is spending time with our friends and family without being in the same room. Virtual communication has skyrocketed and this can be seen in recent Google trends:

Next in the series

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it! The code that created these graphs will be available in my Github repo.

Originally published on medium .

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Chris Brownlie

Data Scientist working in the UK public sector. https://medium.com/@chris.brownlie


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