Sandra Dunham

In my home, the dialogue about COVID-19 and the rapidly increasing case numbers follows the narrative of “Why can’t people just do the right thing? Don’t people realize that their behaviour is making this worse?” And yet, when carefully examined, our own behaviour is, at times, less than stellar. So, why, when the science is clear, are case numbers going up?

According to Michael Hallsworth and Alison Buttenheim, there are three major reasons that people don’t follow public health guidelines and the rate of COVID-19 continues to increase.

The first, rationalization, is what is happening in my home. Although we believe that the risk of COVID-19 is real and understand how behaviour drives increasing rates, we underestimate the risks associated with actions that we want to take (e.g., visiting with friends or family, shopping for gifts, going to restaurants, etc.).

The second, habituation, which occurs occasionally in my home, involves the acceptance of risk as the new normal. Although we might feel uncomfortable grocery shopping, we view it as a necessity and continue to shop, even though we recognize the risk. Early in the pandemic, we lined up for groceries to minimize the numbers in the store. We waited endlessly as the person in front of us spent 20 minutes perusing the soup labels. And we carefully planned how to sanitize our food and ourselves as we headed home. Now, in my region, the stores are crowded, and I simply hope that my mask will keep me safe as I brush by the shoppers who are slowing my excursion.

The final reason, rejection, which is not an issue in my home, occurs when people simply become tired of the bother of COVID-19 and refuse to engage in precautions. On one end of the spectrum, they simply reject the existence of COVID. On the other, they purport that “the cure is worse than the disease.” Generally these people are angry and often they actively refuse to adapt their behaviour to reduce the spread of the disease.

Why Is This So Hard? Pandemic Fatigue

Many people have minimized the challenges of adapting to the COVID world. It is hard to argue when someone says, “You are asked to stay home, that’s it. Our parents (your grandparents) lived through a war where people died and lived through all sorts of deprivation. We have nothing to complain about.” However, we don’t have to be experiencing the worst thing ever, to make the experience a bad one. Humans are naturally social. The urge to connect is extraordinarily strong and social distancing is challenging.

The media has coined the term “pandemic fatigue” to describe the public’s eagerness for a return to normalcy and consequent decrease in compliance with public health guidelines.

There are several psychological reasons people experience pandemic fatigue. Cognitive dissonance is the stress we experience when we must choose between two contradictory beliefs. Typically, we work to change one of the ideas to resolve this stress. We use a variety of personal biases to resolve the cognitive dissonance. In the case of COVID-19, it is the discomfort we experience when our strong desire to be with other people and our understanding of the risks collide.

There are many biases at play. Affect bias: making decisions based on our own emotions, while ignoring evidence that should direct our behaviour. Confirmation bias: looking only at information that supports our beliefs/desires while ignoring contradictory evidence. Optimism bias: underestimating the risks associated with a desired behaviour. Social norms bias: acting in a way that is consistent with peers rather than scientific advice.

How the Shift in Responsibility Has Affected Our Response to COVID-19

Last March, the Government of Canada and many governments around the world took decisive action to slow the spread of COVID-19. When directions were clear and unambiguous, we complied. We stayed in. Canada’s busiest highways were empty. However, as time went by and economies began to open up, the rules became somewhat less clear and the responsibility for managing the spread was shifted from the government to the individual level. Once this occurred, individual human biases came into play. While many people continue to behave exactly as they did in March and April, for most of us, the desire for normalcy has led to small and large lapses in judgement that have created exponential growth in the transmission of the virus.

Does government need to step in as it did in March? Is there another way to slow down transmission of COVID-19? How does the promise of a vaccine play into people’s willingness to reenter lockdown? Unfortunately, as usual, I have no good answers, just many questions. Perhaps 2020 is the “interesting time” referred to in the infamous curse.