Both England and the Netherlands are in lockdown, practicing social distancing, and having shut down all non-vital jobs if the work can’t be done from home, and consequentially, have shut down the non-vital parts of the economy*. However rigorous these measures might already seem, lots of people in their private sphere don’t seem to be too impressed. From a Behavioral Science perspective, the underwhelmed response to COVID-19 (lack of initial panic) is quite worrying. But why is it happening the way that it is?
Panic Buying Now you’re probably thinking: lack of panic? I saw people beat each other up for a 12-pack of toilet paper! And you’re not wrong. A lot of times these videos went viral (especially on TikTok), but what was the response? The response wasn’t for people to panic and stay indoors and cancel all their (social) engagements and be compliant with the interventions proposed from their own. Talk of a lockdown had been floating through the air for a long time. The response wasn’t to COVID-19, the response was to being locked into your own house, with no supplies! People expected a lockdown and acted on that expectation. They started stockpiling (Dutch: Hamsteren!) as if we had suddenly decided that the human race was in fact a hibernating species and winter was coming… So the panic buying really wasn’t a reaction to COVID-19 as much as it was to the inevitable lockdowns. So by this stage, most people really didn’t give a damn about COVID-19 and its potential impact. And that is odd. Also, it has to be mentioned that “panic buying” has been vastly taken out of context. You know the reason a lot of stores were empty? Not because people suddenly started buying ten times as much as they normally do, not even twice as much as they normally do. The reason the shelves are empty is because of the supply chain. Most stores, especially those in big city centers, can’t store a lot of stock, so they get new stock delivered every day, sometimes multiple times each day. They have averages for how much they need each day, or for each delivery slot, and order that in days before. Now that people have slightly changed their shopping, the initial estimates and orders are way off. Leading to the empty shelves. Also contributing is that a lot of countries are closing their borders, so a lot of international products aren’t coming in anymore. But this happened quite a lot later. That’s what’s going on here. The supply chain needed some time to adjust. It’s not your neighbor cheating you out of boxes of chocolate cereal.
Perception of Risk So people have reacted to the lockdown, but not really to COVID-19. Why weren’t we scared to death as soon as COVID-19 hit our own respective countries? By this stage we had seen what had been happening in Italy. And it wasn’t good… But somewhere this absolutely underwhelmed response almost makes sense. People don’t know how to judge COVID-19, because most people have never dealt with something like this. In these types of situations people looks towards authority. They look towards their government (as misguided as this behaviour might be). Governments have hired in experts to advise them and create policy from there. Most people have absolutely no idea how the judge COVID-19. A lot of information exists, but a lot of it is also quite unclear, contradictory or plain misinformation. If governments don’t send out a strong message, or any message at all, how are we supposed to judge the situation at its right value? Guess what? Most people were unable to do so. What happened in the UK? They came up with the term behavioural fatigue. A term which no behavioural scientist I know has ever heard of, nor has done any research on (one does follow from the other, I quite agree). They judged COVID-19 as a more hardcore version of the flu, and as such wanted to promote herd immunity. Issue is, the British healthcare system can’t deal with that approach, it doesn’t have the resources available to hack it. Also, before I forget: the behavioural fatigue referred to people getting too tired of complying to the behavioural measures (handwashing, social distancing etc.) for a prolonged period of time, leading to increased non-compliance and as such an increase of contamination towards the end of the “COVID-19 timeframe.” They later came back to this “policy” and, as the number of contaminations kept rising and the UK healthcare system really couldn’t cope, finally initiated a lockdown. The day the lockdown was declared people had to effectively be dragged out of the pub. Yes, the British were still going to the pub. And why wouldn’t you? The government had just signaled to you that we were dealing with a flu. It was then end of February, start of March, of course you’re dealing with flu. It’s the f*ing flu season mate. I largely blame these type of responses (the British government wasn’t the only one behaving like this) for shaping how most people perceive COVID-19 as is. Actual measures and other signs of seriousness were send out way too late. And the attitude was way too relaxed. As an authority, this is the absolutely worst signal to send out. We are seeing the consequences of this now.
Compensatory behaviour Now even if you accept that there is a threat and that there is a risk of contamination involved, for both you and others, behaviour might not be nearly as compliant as you think. Why not? Well, it depends on how you judge the riskiness of each behaviour. I mean what did we see happen? People rushed to the grocery stores, but to buy what? Toilet paper (not the focus of this argument) and hand sanitizer. Yes, it was judged that as long as your hands were clean you should be fine. The media played into this as well. Prominent figures were no longer allowed to shake hands with each other, but continued to get into each other’s personal space and were still attending public events. It took a long time (too long) before these types of events were cancelled. Within the Netherlands it is expected that large organized events like this won’t be back on until June 1st. Everything until then has effectively been cancelled. But back to the argument. Washing hands is the one intervention everyone jumped onto. There are now YouTube tutorials, they have commercial breaks on Dutch television reiterating the importance of handwashing. I get updates via the Dutch government as soon as I access the internet on the importance of complying with this measure. But what signal does that send? After people seemed to have caught on to the “hand washing movement” they thought they were compliant enough, because for a long time, this was the only advice that was given. This is what people judged to be the intervention to save us all from doom. It is not surprising that it takes a while for people to judge the seriousness and effectiveness of an intervention as a group. Hand washing has become accepted, but as it was the first and only intervention proposed for a long time, it is also now judged as the most effective way of combatting COVID-19, and that just isn’t true. The most effective way of combatting contamination is social isolation. Not even social distancing, but complete isolation. And the latter is a measure that hasn’t been out for very long. And hasn’t been promoted very well either. Most people now almost display compensatory behaviour. They have washed their hands and are staying at an acceptable distance (different measures in different countries) and as such feel that going on a social visit, or ending up with fifty other people on a beach (that’s congregating people, the one thing we tried to prevent…) isn’t that big of a deal. Because if everyone complies with the handwashing approach we are all clean. And if everyone complies with the distance the probability of even being able to infect one another is zero, right? But that’s not how it works. And god forbid that not everyone complies to the initial two rules…
What we see here is that any form of authority, in this case mainly the governments, have a huge role in shaping how their people perceive risk and how they comply to the interventions proposed to deal with this risk. Most messages and signals send out where too little too late, allowing for vast underestimation of the impact COVID-19 could, and would have. Moreover, it seems like the focus of most advertising in COVID-19 has been misdirected, spotlighting a focus which ignores the much more rigorous, but also much more effective measures. This is an interesting time. Stay inside. Stay alone. Stay at a 1.5m (Netherlands) or 2m (England) distance from everyone. Only go out if it is really necessary. When sneezing or coughing do so in your elbow, not in your hands. And do try to wash your hands regularly, especially if you have just come from outside, or if you failed to comply with the elbow-rule. And do so in the order I just proposed. Because that is the right order of importance! To not go absolutely ballistic in social isolation, here is a nice article on things you can do from home. Just click the hyperlink.
*These measures aren’t exclusive to these two countries. These countries are the simply the ones I know most about as I live in both.