Why do people continue to be nonchalant about COVID-19?
Owen Mbundu, Head of Marketing at USB, provides possible explanations as to why citizens are not reacting to the Coronavirus pandemic with the necessary seriousness.
At the time of writing this, the death rate caused by SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has raced past the astonishing figure of 21000 with no immediate slowdown on the horizon. A third of the world’s population is currently under some degree of government-enforced lockdown, and more world leaders are contemplating similar action. On Monday 23 March, President Ramaphosa too announced South Africa would go into lockdown, and that the military would patrol our streets.
If the Chinese, Spanish and South Koreans forewarned the world about the ravages of COVID-19, why did more citizens globally not listen to the warnings from experts, and opted for voluntary measures like social distancing to avoid getting infected? Why are governments compelled to implement far-reaching measures like lockdowns to save lives?
A third of the world’s population is currently under some degree of government-enforced lockdown, and more world leaders are contemplating similar action.
For example, on the very day that the French President almost begged his citizens to stay home, thousands spent the day shopping in crowded areas and going about their daily lives as if nothing had happened. Four days later, he announced a lockdown.
The New York Times reports that even after the rapid increase of infected people in the US, drone images showed amusement parks and beaches bustling with people.
In South Africa, many continue to display risky behaviour like socialising at home or at restaurants and congregating in groups – this in a country where the infection rate has ballooned from 62 to over 1000 in a matter of days.
Why are people so nonchalant when the news, social media and the internet are awash with warnings about the deadliness of COVID-19?
One plausible explanation for this seemingly irrational behaviour is the biases and heuristics that influence our perception of risk. The availability heuristic made famous by behavioural scientists Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein comes to mind. According to the availability heuristic, people assess risks based on how readily they come to mind. In the words of the authors, “If people can easily think of relevant examples, they are far more likely to be frightened than if they cannot”. Salience is closely associated with the availability heuristic, meaning if one has personally experienced an event, you are likely to believe it exists than if you had only read about it. The fact that COVID-19 was initially positioned as a far-flung Chinese problem that may or may not one day reach South African shores arguably influenced our collective assessment of the risks involved.
…this is a time for our personal freedoms to take a backseat if we are to turn the tide on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Syon Bhanot provides a second explanation that ascribes our nonchalance to COVID-19 to psychological reactance. Jack Brehm, who pioneered the concept, argues that when people believe their freedoms are at stake, they are motivated to regain it. We observe this phenomenon in people who, when instructed to do one thing, feel compelled to do the opposite. This human oddity is even present in children. Parents would know: When you tell a child “Don’t jump into the pool”, that is what they will end up doing. Psychological reactance is mainly present in societies that place a high value to individual freedoms. Western nations like the US, UK and Western Europe are therefore prime candidates for people who ignore warnings or sage advice from experts. In Bhanot’s words, “Our desire to push back against sound advice is driving us toward behaviours that will strengthen the public health tsunami that is just around the corner”. Autocratic countries like China, where compliance takes precedence over individual freedoms, are the opposite.
In the current time, psychological reactance further aggravates the growing antipathy towards intellectuals, the ‘elites’ who think they know what is best for the masses. Here, Brexit comes to mind.
What can governments do to counter the pernicious effects of the availability heuristic and reactance?
First, to counter the availability heuristic, not only is frequent information sharing necessary; governments may have to communicate more regularly the adverse consequences of non-compliance by drawing parallels with countries where adherence is low. Unfortunately, soon there will be many such examples to draw from. Also, South Africa must do more to ensure relevant information reaches all its citizens by communicating through the correct channels and in all 11 official languages, including none verbal languages. Proper communication will go a long way to counter a plethora of dangerous misinformation making the rounds.
Unfortunately, there is no magic wand; we all have to act responsibly. An excellent place to start is to listen to warnings from experts and practise social distancing.
Second, individuals should reflect on their attitudes and responses to directives from the government: Are these logic or reactance based?
Third, eminent people in society should model desired behaviours and encourage others to do the same. Fortunately, some prominent people have responded in this regard, as evidenced by many social media platforms, such as FabAcademic on Twitter. Famous people may also play an essential role in countering the risk of stigmatisation following infection by sharing their status should they test positive. The British royal family clearly understood the autokinetic effect on society that the royal establishment has by announcing the positive COVID-19 result of a family member. In South Africa, where HIV positive people are continuously stigmatised, this could save lives.
Fourth, this is a time for our personal freedoms to take a backseat if we are to turn the tide on the COVID-19 pandemic. It is time for everyone to heed the warnings from the government; not doing so could cost many lives.
New York Times reporter Donald G. McNiel Jr recently argued that if we had a magic wand, and could freeze everyone in the situation (at least at a safe distance), we could stop the transmission of the virus immediately. Many would still be sick, but COVID-19 would disappear overnight. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand; we all have to act responsibly. An excellent place to start is to listen to warnings from experts and practise social distancing.