How can governments urge people to wear masks and practice social distancing?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been overthrowing entire nations and creating panic in the minds of millions across the globe. According to the WHO, till date there have been 22,536,278 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world with 789197 reported deaths. But we have come so far within 9 months since the virus was first reported in China in 2019. In many countries across the world, people have rose up to the occasion and put up an efficient defense mechanism against the spreading of the virus. The world health organization and government healthcare organizations, hospitals and medical institutions have come a long way in identifying the symptoms, methods of the virus spreading, advising people to stay at home and go into self-isolation and even in the race towards creating a vaccine. They have created guidelines for people to follow in order to be safe. These include: washing hands with soap and water, using alcohol based hand sanitizers, maintaining a safe distance of 1 meter between people in public, avoid touching eyes nose and mouth, seeking medical attention once the symptoms are observed and to go into isolation and stay at home. They have also recommended the use of face masks as a means of protection against viral respiratory diseases including COVID.
The Indian government has also been agile in creating precaution and taking necessary measures for the prevention of a mass spreading of virus, since the first reported patient in Kerala in March 2020. The government initiated a nationwide lockdown on 25th March for three weeks, which was later extended. In a country with a population of 135 crore people, the initial lockdown did help curb the spreading to some extent although it affected businesses and the economy. The government has also strengthened the healthcare workforce in the country and launched several campaigns to create awareness among citizens on the importance of maintaining social distancing and keeping hygiene.
Usage of masks:
The most common means of transmission of the virus is through droplets from an infected persons coughing or sneezing. These reach up to 1 meter in distance and hence in a highly populated country like India, the government promoting the usage of masks along with hand cleaning and social distancing is so that any infected person may not help spread it to others. Also fomites (objects exposed to infectious agents) like door knobs, switches etc. cause transmission, hence if asymptomatic carriers are covered while coughing or sneezing in public places it helps prevent virus spread, along with effective use of hand sanitizers and washing hands frequently.
Social distancing is the one of the three best defenses against COVID along with hand hygiene and masks. It has the same effect of reducing transmission by infected people, keeping them away from the proximity of others. The nation-wide lockdown was done to help bring in social distancing and avoid people gathering in public and work places, other institutions. However a lockdown of that proportion is not economically viable or practical for a longer duration. Now as the restrictions are being eased, it is critical that people consciously avoid unnecessary gatherings and behave responsibly in public.
Changing people’s attitude:
Attitude drives behavior and for people to change their behavior of arranging events, getting together and not being bothered by hygiene there must be a driver that alters or changed the attitude of people. For the government and policy makers to trigger changes in people’s attitude they can utilize the theory of reasoned action or the Fishbein model
Fishbein Model focusing on subjective norms:
Subjective norms means the perceived social pressure to perform or not perform an action. The personal opinion or belief of people can be changed by increasing awareness through media campaigns, using social media, and focusing on the outcomes; be it the negative outcome of getting infected or the positive outcome or staying healthy with their family. But as we know that losses loom larger in the minds of people, it would be better to create an impression of threat or danger of being infected if they do not comply to the new norms of social distancing and using face masks. Also Indians are highly influenced by what their neighbors, colleagues or relatives think or do. Hence focusing on highlighting the fact that you will be ostracized and alienated if you do not follow these norms, adding the fact that others will hold you responsible for spreading the infection to a community, if you turn out to be an asymptomatic carrier later proved to be COVID positive. The message can be given through public awareness campaigns. It is like adding a new belief to the customers mind.
The elaboration likelihood model reveals that if people are exposed to persuasive communication and they are motivated to process, and if the nature of communication invokes unfavorable thoughts it will lead to an enduring negative attitude. If positive thoughts are invoked, it will lead to an enduring positive attitude. In case of creating awareness for the preventive measures, they can focus on creating unfavorable thoughts and associations to COVID and then subsequently providing the precautionary norms which would create positive thoughts and hence lead to better action.
Using a moderate fear appeal in public awareness campaigns, can be effective. However people are always of the idea that bad things happen to others and not to themselves. Although in major parts of the country, news and media coverage has created a sense of caution in their minds, some might still be unfazed. Hence it won’t effective in completely relying on fear, rather there must be a moderate fear appeal followed by the solution which is handwashing, using face masks and social distancing. We have already seen states launching several such campaigns and awareness videos, like the ‘Break the chain’ campaign in Kerala.
However there must be a sense of caution while instilling fears in the minds of ordinary people. The government and policy makers should also give assurance that if the norms are followed the government will be able to curb the spread and bring back the nation to normalcy. Initially during the outbreak of the virus, several countries and states witnessed large quantities of panic buying by consumers, which lead to shortage of essential supplies including masks, hand sanitizers for the healthcare professionals for whom the supplies are of utmost importance. These kind of situations can only be tamed by reassurance from the authorities and the governments
Another option which is also popularly being used by various states and the central government are public interest ads that have celebrities in them. We have seen advertisements with several celebrities coming forward and citing the importance of social distancing, using face masks, highlighting etiquette on its usage and disposal.
Operant conditioning- Learning
Operant conditioning is a learning process which helps in fortification of a behavior by means of reinforcement and punishment. Governments have used the police department and law enforcement to make sure people do not violate the rules. In several states like Kerala hefty fines are imposed on finding people who are not wearing masks in public places. Also the time restrictions for keeping shops and businesses open are strictly adhered to. During the months of onset of the pandemic, the police department had worked actively to prevent people from gathering in public places for work, fun or in devotional places. Now as the restrictions are being eased, people feel liberated from the monotony of staying at home and have started ignoring social distancing at places. In order to ensure adherence to the rules, following the opening up of businesses and activities, operant conditioning can be used in many ways.
These include fining people in case they haven’t worn masks in public places, if more than a stipulated number of people gather for celebrations or ceremonies, if the businesses and shops aren’t run without precautionary measures like providing hand sanitizers at the entrance, allowing only a specific number of people inside at a time. Asking people to pay a fine as a punishment for not following the rules will help to stop them from repeating the mistakes.
But charging heft fine every time might create a negative attitude towards the rules and precautions in peoples mind. In order to prevent this, the law enforcement department can take methods where they sell protective masks to people who come to public places, but charge them a very high price for the same.
Prospect theory-Losses loom larger than gain
In the paper titled: “Prospect Theory: An Analysis Of Decision Under Risk” by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky it is stated that “People make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains rather than the final outcome”. It also explains the three kinds of biases when people make decisions. They are: Certainty, Isolation and loss aversion.
Loss aversion- People tend to avoid or dislike losses and losses loom larger than gains. The idea of prospect theory can be used in conjunction with the moderate fear appeal. Since people dislike losses, intimating them what they would lose if they are not cautious enough would create a significant impact. Since using facemask and social distancing would mean not only risking your own life, but more so the life of your family members who live with you, showcasing campaigns around this theme of losing your family due to your mistake would touch the minds and hearts of Indians who have high familial values.
Adjusting the frame of reference:
Of the most people today who do not wear masks while going out, majority have just forgot to wear it. Using masks are unfamiliar for a large number of people in the country and they associate it to doctors and healthcare workers only. The frame of reference or associations with masks are thus protective equipment for healthcare workers. However people do not forget to dress up while going out. If we can change the frame of reference of masks from a proactive gear and build association of masks with normal clothing, more people would start to use it. Many textile companies and brands have started launching their own printed version of masks that are reusable and satisfactorily efficient. So people will start associating this with a sense of fashion which might help popularize its use.
Anchoring effect creates a cognitive bias in the minds of the viewers. While campaigning this can be used effectively by anchoring the average number of people whom you as a carrier can infect if you do not wear a mask or conform to social distancing. Creating a feeling of guilt and holding you responsible for the death of some of those people will have an effect on the conscience of the viewer. Follow it up with the number of people you can save if you wear a mask and stick to social distancing.
Enhancing memory through repetition:
Learning involves transferring of information from the environment to the long term memory. Repetition on advertisements, banners across all media platforms can help enhance the memory of the viewer. And create strong associations of precaution with a healthier life and lower risk of infection. The government can help air repeated advertisements on media and also promote social media challenges to do the same.
It has been suggested by health organizations that cloth masks if made properly can also be efficient enough and ensure safety, so by promoting people to make their own masks at home and giving help, tutorials for the same can push people to wearing masks quite often, since they are putting in effort to make it themselves, they will try to reduce the dissonance and suggest the same to others and also be subject to effort justification. Since the time and effort was expensed by them, people will feel more encouraged to wear masks in public.
Creating positive associations:
Create positive associations with following the policies and rules of hygiene, masks, social distancing. This can be by associating heroism to acting responsibly. It can be depicted in an awareness campaign, where ordinary people who follow the rules and help others are helping themselves and also the state, they are hailed as superheroes. The ad can gain much traction and popularity. Similar campaigns associating the number of lives you save by following rules and policies can bring in a positive affect and ensure people follow it.
Reasons why some people choose not to wear a mask are since they feel a loss of control over everything else, they choose to exercise some control and have comfort over their choice of not wearing one. Inconsistent information from the side of the government and the scientific institutions on the requirement of wearing a mask whether it is imperative or not has also affected the confidence of some. In order to win back the confidence, government can show statistical information stating that in places where there is strong adherence to the mask wearing and social distancing rules, there are fewer infections reported day on and also lower rates of transmission. This evidence can help create confidence in the minds of the viewers.
Social distancing is a rather sensitive issue to handle. It affects the emotional status of people and their mental health. Humans communicate through touch and it is a very important sensory need. The lack of this during social distancing will have more profound effects on the emotional and mental wellbeing of people. It is habit to be close to people when you communicate, to refrain from this requires an overpowering sense of caution. This can be achieved by creating and sustaining a moderate fear and communicating the risks involved in violating it. But this alone would not do the job. To give up on something which is as personal as a sense of touch would also require other reinforcements ensuring and stating that they will be recognized for this sacrifice in a positive way by those who are deprived of their touch. This helps remove the stigma of distancing in the minds of people. Conveying the message that keeping social distancing will be recognised as a sense of care for each other will have a more profound effect. Creating slogans like ‘To care is to stay away’ can help push this message.
Thus the policy makers can influence the attitudes, learning, and perception of citizens to create a sense of caution and a sense of contribution to the society by using these different means and measures in the right way. Other than that, creating a sense that they are being monitored continuously on whether they are following the rules; that they will be criticized for not adhering to it will work. For this the government like it is doing now, can deploy the law enforcement departments and also impose fines on law breakers. Changing people’s attitude and mind set would reduce the requirement of such brute and harsh methods. Nurturing a hope in the minds of millions to one day go back to the normal lives they had before the pandemic is the ultimate driver for action. Communicating to work as a community to keep that hope alive is pivotal. ‘To stay away today for a closer tomorrow’.
7. “Prospect Theory: An Analysis Of Decision Under Risk” by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky