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[Article series] The experts behind Luxembourg's COVID-19 fight

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Published on Monday, 29 June 2020

Conchita d’Ambrosio is Professor in Economics at the University of Luxembourg’s Faculty of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences. With her colleagues from the Department of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences, she developed a large international survey to assess the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on individual well-being, health conditions and income inequalities.

The survey will help to understand how people cope in times of a crisis and improve support for the population groups, who suffer the most from the negative effects of the pandemic.

Could you tell us more about your background and expertise?

I am an economist, with a Ph.D. in Economics from New York University (2000). I joined the University of Luxembourg in April 2013 as part of the FNR PEARL programme on socio-economic inequality. When talking about Economics, most people think that I study the stock market and investments, or work on aggregate indicators of economic performance such as GDP, productivity, inflation and unemployment. These are phenomena of interest for some economists, but not for me. I am a member of the Department of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences, where researchers are interested in the study of human behaviour. We are an interdisciplinary department, with a wide spectrum of current research areas ranging across neurophysiology, neurocognition and behaviour, the economics of health and well-being, clinical and health psychology, educational, social and media psychology, and developmental and cultural psychology.

I am in charge of the "Economics and Social Well-being" group. Besides me, ten young economists at the doctoral and postdoctoral levels are part of this group. Our research aims to assess socio-economic inequality and its impact on individual and social well-being from a multidimensional perspective, with both theoretical and applied focus. We work to provide theoretically-sound measures of phenomena - such as economic insecurity, multidimensional poverty, relative deprivation, resilience, and social exclusion - that are becoming increasingly common in our societies. We also explore the impacts of various life events on measures of well-being via the use of panel and birth-cohort data. We are interested in evaluating, for example, the effects of mothers’ major financial problems during pregnancy on childbirth outcomes, such as body weight and head circumference. We also quantify the consequences of the same negative financial events experienced during childhood on the child’s cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes later in life. Lately, we have been evaluating the effects of economic insecurity on behaviour and preferences in adult life.

How is your expertise relevant in the current COVID context?

The analysis of the evolution of individual well-being during the pandemic, identifying who has been the most affected, and the resulting impact on human behaviour is essential to understand the whole range of consequences of COVID-19 on our lives, including those who were the most vulnerable and the most resilient, and make adequate public-policy recommendations.

I have worked for a long time on individual well-being and its determinants. With my co-authors, we analysed what happens to peoples’ life satisfaction when they enter poverty. We have shown that individuals do not adapt to poverty, no matter how long they spend being poor: poverty starts bad and stays bad. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a (unfortunate) ‘natural experiment’ to causally investigate the extent to which individuals adapt to very significant shocks as a function of their individual characteristics and psychological traits, such as loneliness, stress, depression, the ability to regulate emotion and to manage and respond to emotion, and social support.

The impact of the pandemic on individual well-being very likely differs across groups. My work on inequality and poverty will allow me to consider whether the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated health and income inequalities, and to identify the most vulnerable groups. This in turn will lead to evidence-based policy recommendations to mitigate the effects of the current pandemic and future events.

What is your specific role in ongoing COVID projects?

My main involvement so far has been in designing studies to understand how the COVID pandemic and the subsequent different confinement measures affect aspects of our lives. We launched two surveys with about 200 questions in Luxembourg, Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Sweden. These countries have had different experiences in terms of the outbreak and intensity of the pandemic, the introduction and extent of confinement measures, the country’s economic performance in recent decades, and the fiscal and social policies put in place to help the socio-economic groups who were the hardest hit by the lockdown restrictions.

The first data was collected on 1 May 2020 and the second data collection wave started on 9 June 2020. The estimated number of participants in the first wave was 1,700 per country in all countries bar Sweden and Luxembourg, where it was 1,200; in the second wave we aim to interview 1,000 individuals in all countries and 700 in Sweden and Luxembourg. This gives us a grand total of 14,600 interviewees.

We ask about a wide variety of aspects of people’s lives, beginning with questions about demographics, the place and characteristics of the residence including access to outside space, the characteristics of the household, education, occupation, household income and changes due to the pandemic.  In the second section, we ask about health condition and mental disorders in general and over the past two weeks, smoking and drinking habits and the frequency of physical activities.

We continue with detailed questions about the participants’ experiences of COVID-19, such as isolation status and adherence to social-distancing measures, trust in the government and the health system to handle the crisis. Other questions cover what may have happened during lockdown to the survey taker, such as job loss, eviction, the inability to pay bills, and illness and death of someone. We ask about their life satisfaction over the past week, their worries about their family and friends, work, obtaining food, medication and internet access as well as daily habits and contacts with social groups, both physical and remote, the quality of sleep and eating habits. We also asked all the questions used to produce psychological scales to measure the severity of anxiety, depression, stress, loneliness and resilience.

These data are a treasure trove and it will allow us to contribute to the analysis of the consequences of the pandemic on individuals and societies and to develop guidelines for policy makers to boost economic performance while at the same time protecting the health and well-being of the population. We will be able to propose best practices to individuals and civil associations to support resilience, and mental and physical health, and provide health authorities with recommendations to prepare and optimize responses for the ongoing and future epidemics.

Who are the members of your team and what are their contributions to the ongoing COVID project?

I share the role of principal investigator with my colleague Claus Vögele, professor of Health Psychology. The surveys cover the demographic, socio-economic and psychological aspects of individual lives. It would not have been possible to design them without joining forces with experts from a number of different disciplines. The members of our teams are also actively involved, especially Annika Lutz and Remi Yin.