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FILE PHOTO: A Google search page is seen through a magnifying glass in this photo illustration taken in Berlin (REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: A Google search page is seen through a magnifying glass in this photo illustration taken in Berlin (REUTERS)

How covid-19 has changed what we search online

Searches for covid-19 symptoms, vaccine, protection methods and medical treatment terms have surged as people query Google over pandemic related fears

With the uncertainty around lockdown measures in India last month, the pressing question on most people’s mind was whether it would be extended. In fact, this was the most trending question related to the novel coronavirus on Google in April.

As the pandemic spread, so have the fears and uncertainties around it. Many have turned to Dr. Google for answers: “What are the symptoms of coronavirus?", “Is headache/sneezing a symptom of coronavirus?".

Others have turned to Google on life hacks to survive the pandemic and endure the lockdown. Among the most asked how-to questions were, “how-to: make a mask? make hand sanitizer? use Zoom?" and like never before, “how to cut your own hair?"

Source: Google Trends
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Source: Google Trends

Globally, Google searches for “coronavirus" (including related terms such as “covid-19", “wuhan virus" and “corona") peaked on 16 March, five days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic.

Starting January, most searches on this topic have come from Italy, one of the worst-hit nations.

For India, virus-related searches saw a smaller peak first on 30 January, when the first confirmed case was reported. It peaked into a bigger wave on 27 March, two days after the nation-wide lockdown was announced.

Within India, searches for coronavirus have been higher in Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern states. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala have seen relatively fewer searches. Searches till 8 May have been considered for this analysis. A search interest of 100 on Google Trends implies the keyword to be most popular relative to all searches in the area.

April’s top trending questions on coronavirus in India also featured “What is plasma therapy for coronavirus?". Globally too, searches for medical terms related to treatment and cure have gained traction. As the world awaits a vaccine, the quest continues online. Starting January, top search terms for “vaccine" include phrases such as “covid-19 vaccine update", “corona vaccine news today" and “coronavirus vaccine trials", betraying frantic desperation for an end to the pandemic. Online searches for the anti-malarial drug “hydroxychloroquine" and related terms (its use, availability, price etc.) have also gone up, but were searched fewer times than vaccine-related terms.

Worldwide, online searches for masks (protective, medical, surgical, n95) were four times more than those for hand sanitisers. Searches for social distancing peaked during this period but overall saw less traction than those for protective gear.

Studies on covid-19 suggest that the presence of comorbidities such as diabetes, asthma and cardiac problems raise death risks.

The searches online reflect those fears. Terms such as “coronavirus diabetes", “coronavirus asthma" and other risk factors such as “coronavirus smoking/obesity" are among the most searched relating to the virus. Searches for “comorbidity" as a topic also peaked in end-March, the data shows.

South Asian countries appear to be searching most on topics related to prevention. The highest number of searches for hydroxychloroquine were from India and the US, as they entered a deal for India to export the drug to the US. The highest searches for “ventilators" come from Nigeria as the African continent grapples with ventilator shortages.

The glossary of coronavirus has revived many words such as “quarantine" and “asymptomatic" which are used more frequently than ever now. As our realities have changed over the past couple of months, so have our searches online.

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