Polling from YouGov conducted for the Economist gives us a sense of the second-degree toll of the pandemic. About 1 in 8 Americans say that a member of their family died of the virus; another fifth say that they lost a close friend. Only about two-thirds of respondents said they didn’t know anyone who had died of the virus. In other words, more than 710,000 people have died, and those deaths were felt by as many as 110 million Americans.
As you would expect, YouGov’s polling has shown an increase in the number of people who know people who died of the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. Interestingly, though, as the number of cases declined nationally, so did the number of people who indicated that they’d lost family and friends to the virus. In mid-May, more than a fifth of respondents said they lost a close friend to the virus. By early July, that had fallen to 15 percent before climbing again. There was a similar pattern with those who said they’d lost family.
One might be forgiven for thinking that politics played some role in that shift. After all, there was an effort by some in the conservative media last year to downplay the pandemic by claiming that deaths were being overreported. Might such skepticism lead to a rejection of the idea that the death of a family member or friend was due to the coronavirus at all?
Looking at data by party, though, we see that the decline in the early summer was bipartisan. We also see that increases in Republicans reporting knowing someone who died of the virus align with points in the pandemic when more people were dying, particularly more people in red states.
The increase in the number of people who report losing a close friend has largely been among Republicans since early July, a period in which the virus was hitting red states much harder.
Interestingly, there was no significant difference in views of vaccines between Republicans who did and didn’t know someone who’d died of the virus in the most recent YouGov poll. Overall, 32 percent of Republicans said they wouldn’t get vaccinated, for example, with 34 percent of those who didn’t know a covid-19 victim holding that view and 30 percent of Republicans who did know a victim rejecting a vaccine. That is not a statistically significant difference. The same divide played out on President Biden’s announced vaccine requirement: 23 percent of Republicans who knew a victim supported the move, compared to 19 percent of those who didn’t. While a fifth of both groups say they always wear face coverings outside their homes, a lot more of those who don’t know anyone who died (37 percent) than those who do (22 percent) say they never wear a mask.
A key part of the YouGov findings, though, is the relative parity with the national death toll. Slightly more Democrats than Republicans report having friends or family who’d died of the virus, aligning with the red-blue state split in the death toll. While we often think about the virus as being centered in highly populous areas (in part because of the initial toll seen in places like New York), a per-resident map of the death toll shows that the pandemic has incurred a heavy cost everywhere — or, at least, everywhere east of the Rockies and outside of New England.
The outstanding question, of course, is how many Americans will know a covid-19 victim by the time the pandemic stops being national news.