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The outbreak of COVID-19 generated severe emotional reactions, and restricted mobility was a crucial measure to reduce the spread of the virus. This study describes the changes in public emotional reactions and mobility patterns in the Chinese population during the COVID-19 outbreak.
We collected data on public emotional reactions in response to the outbreak through Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, between 1st January and 31st March 2020. Using anonymized location-tracking information, we analyzed the daily mobility patterns of approximately 90% of Sichuan residents.
There were three distinct phases of the emotional and behavioral reactions to the COVID-19 outbreak. The alarm phase (19th–26th January) was a restriction-free period, characterized by few new daily cases, but a large amount public negative emotions [the number of negative comments per Weibo post increased by 246.9 per day, 95% confidence interval (CI) 122.5–371.3], and a substantial increase in self-limiting mobility (from 45.6% to 54.5%, changing by 1.5% per day, 95% CI 0.7%–2.3%). The epidemic phase (27th January–15th February) exhibited rapidly increasing numbers of new daily cases, decreasing expression of negative emotions (a decrease of 27.3 negative comments per post per day, 95% CI −40.4 to −14.2), and a stabilized level of self-limiting mobility. The relief phase (16th February–31st March) had a steady decline in new daily cases and decreasing levels of negative emotion and self-limiting mobility.
During the COVID-19 outbreak in China, the public's emotional reaction was strongest before the actual peak of the outbreak and declined thereafter. The change in human mobility patterns occurred before the implementation of restriction orders, suggesting a possible link between emotion and behavior.
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