Why county lockdowns won't work without changes in our behaviour

The response to the pandemic requires massive action from governments, industry and citizens to reduce the spread of the infection writes Catherine Kelly, PhD student, Dept of Applied Social Studies

Covid‐19 has gravely affected human life worldwide across emotional, social, financial, educational, and professional dimensions. It has caused major challenges for individuals, institutions and nations. We have experienced national lockdowns and now appear to be moving swiftly into a culture where lockdowns of counties will become the new norm.

But while this may be an essential strategy, the authoritarian approach to this restriction, specifically in relation to the current lockdown in Dublin, was met with public outcry. Have the Irish government not learnt that effective crisis communication is a critical component of an effective response strategy during a pandemic? The lack of dialogue before introduction of this lockdown with the Irish nation and, in particular, with the people of Dublin was an abysmal oversight. Keeping the lines of communication open can be the difference between effectively managing and supporting people and having a frustrated, non-compliant and exhausted public.

The response to the current pandemic requires massive action from governments, industry and citizens to reduce its spread. Practices such as following social distancing guidelines, increasing personal hygiene (especially hand washing) and wearing face masks and appropriate personal protective equipment are measures that require individuals to change their behaviour by adapting to a new way of life. Apart from governmental mandates, the success of regulations will be reliant on the behavioural compliance of the nation.

We have seen the exponential increase in rates of infection worldwide. We now know from evidence that coronavirus kills at a far faster rate and is far more infectious than the flu, but a vaccine to eradicate this killer illness has thus far eluded us. As we enter the winter, dread builds over ominous predictions about a lack of hospital beds for those in critical condition. This fear is compounded by a predicted resurgence of yet another wave of the virus which may again result in a national lockdown.

Yet despite all of the evidence and the constant media reports of impending doom, it is evident that many people are simply not taking this deadly virus seriously. The behaviour we are currently witnessing in many sections of our society, in which there are continual breaches of public health guidelines, is in direct contrast to the behaviour of the stereotypical law abiding cocooner, who is terrified to resume any part of a return to normal life for fear of catching a killer disease. What we are observing in simple terms is appropriate and inappropriate behavioural responses to a complex, uncertain future.   

Given the significant human and financial cost of the impact of the virus and the future projections on its spread if we cannot curb or eliminate it, one might expect human beings to possess the emotional intelligence and foresight to adapt their personal behaviour and apply a common sense approach to living as risk free as possible with Covid-19. Alas this is not the case! The human toll of the disease cannot be underestimated and the result could lead to a catastrophic societal collapse.

So how is our government reacting to breaches of Covid restrictions and anti-social behaviour? The mantra of 'we are all in this together' was diluted with the Golfgate debacle. The crisis has focused the media and general public to critically evaluate and debate every decision that the government makes. We as a society have less control over our lives than we had pre-pandemic and we are at the mercy of our government to navigate us unharmed through a daunting, unchartered winter. Ironically, this comes at a time when public belief in the Government’s ability is at an all-time low. 

Far from reassuring the public, the introduction of ever-increasing regulations is causing an unnecessary increase in anxiety and hysteria. Calls for a common sense approach to decision making and a plea for the government to demonstrate sound judgement and appropriate communication skills combined with participatory dialogue with the people of Ireland appears to be the rock that our elected national leaders are perishing on.

The polarised, tunnel vision response of our government to breaches of public health is gravely worrying. This pandemic appears to have given the government extraordinary powers, but there must be a recognition that breaches of our current public health guidelines could be detrimental to the welfare of our state. Is our current obsession with granting additional legal powers to the Gardaí to instigate punitive measures in order to curb this behaviour the price we should pay for our nation’s safety? Or is it merely a short sighted reaction to a complex human behavioural matter? The likelihood of an unravelling society will increase as people begin to shape their behaviour in response to disproportionate authoritarian power. 

It appears prudent at this stage of increasing public disagreement that the main objective of our government should be to develop a more socially cohesive society. Public health emergencies require people to change their regular behavioural patterns in line with best practice infection control measures. There is a dearth of high quality knowledge, expertise and research into the science of social behaviour which could be used as another strand to support government to develop an effective, least restrictive, behavioural change strategy for all citizens to combat the spread of Covid-19.

Past research shows that behavioural change requires a sophisticated, sensitive approach as behaviours are deeply rooted in each individual's culture. If we truly are in this together, it might be more prudent and far more effective to develop a multi-dimensional proactive approach. Rather than using an ineffective slap on the wrist methodology of compliance, we need an approach which targets all of society, building trust and coalitions with formal and informal leaders and working with the business community to promote and encourage Covid-19 behavioural compliance.