BLOOMINGTON — Late last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, less than 1 in 5 Hoosiers felt that a major disease outbreak was likely to harm their families during the next 10 years.

Their bigger concerns were over an economic crisis, a government shutdown or extreme weather, according to the annual Hoosier Life Survey released this week by Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute.

While the survey traditionally polls Hoosiers about their attitudes toward the environment and extreme weather, researchers, by chance, added a question comparing Indiana residents’ views on possibly harmful future events.

The new question was: “How likely do you think it is that your family will be harmed by any of the following possible events?” The four choices included a disease outbreak, extreme weather, an economic crisis or a government shutdown.

“We just embedded it within a different context and we hope that it sheds new light on how Hoosiers prepare to face risk,” Eric Sandweiss, an IU professor of history and co-leader of the survey, said.

Among survey respondents, 14% felt a major disease outbreak was “likely” to hit their families; another 4% thought it would be “very likely” their family would be harmed by an outbreak, amounting to a total of 18%.

But the three other choices rated higher.

Topping the list was an economic crisis which concerned 56% of the respondents. A government shutdown came in second with a total of 49% with extreme weather at 43%.

“These survey results suggest that, until recently, Hoosiers were largely unconcerned about the likelihood of a pandemic,” Matt Houser, an IU sociologist and Environmental Resilience Institute research fellow who co-led the survey, said in a statement.

“From coronavirus, to climate change, to corn yields, we live in interconnected systems. Many of the actions we can take to be prepared for climate change will also increase our resilience to diseases like COVID-19,” Houser said.

But what the survey might indicate below the surface is whether Hoosiers are prepared for perceived harmful events.

The results “do show us how much MORE likely Hoosiers are to anticipate the danger of extreme weather events than they are at least some other major risks for which we need to prepare,” Sandweiss wrote in a response to CNHI.

“Overall, though, they suggest that even events that people have witnessed in their own recent past—and that they know may affect others around them in the near future—still seem unlikely to affect us personally in years to come. People need to learn to prepare for such events as though any risk were also a personal risk,” Sandweiss wrote.

Among other reported outcomes:

• Indiana residents expressed strong trust in scientists as a source of information on extreme weather. But Hoosiers identifying as “rural” are much less likely to trust scientists and prefer their “own judgment” as a source of information on extreme weather. Community dialogues may be a more effective way to discuss resilience planning with rural residents, researchers said.

• Most Hoosiers expect climate change will harm plants, animals, people in the state and themselves at least moderately.

• Lower-income Hoosiers are more likely to expect to be harmed “a great deal” by climate change, suggesting a need for programs and policies to help these communities act on the concerns.

• Rural and urban Hoosiers expressed about equally high levels of interest in or current use of solar panels for homes to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, despite rural residents expressing far less belief in human-caused climate change.

Sandweiss added, “I’m struck by the high degree of recognition given to our changing climate and to the potential deleterious effects of increased extreme weather events.

“But I also think that the survey shows us how much more we need to talk to one another—scientists, policymakers, and the general public—in order to share information, prioritize our needs and desires, and generally find that elusive balance between personal liberty and social consent amidst the stresses brought on by global changes in our environment,” he added.

Among the results from the disease outbreak question, Indianapolis residents were on average less likely to expect their family’s lives to be impacted by a major outbreak over the next 10 years.

Lower-income Hoosiers living in Indianapolis, defined by earning between $0 and $44,999 annually, were more likely to expect to be harmed by a disease outbreak than those in the same income bracket who lived in other areas of the state.

In comparison, respondents in middle-to-high income households in Indianapolis were less likely than those in other regions with the same income to expect a major disease outbreak.

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