When citizens act against their interest | Opinion

As the world continues to grapple with the most extraordinary health crisis of recent times, more than 200,000 people have been fined for not wearing masks and more than 8,000 fined for not maintaining the required physical distance in public spaces in Delhi between September 7 and November 16. And this represents only those who were caught.

It appears that only a direct and personal confrontation with Covid-19 may have a powerful enough impact on people to take precautions. Until then, they will neither protect themselves nor others. It is only when their parents test positive that they will run from one hospital to another trying to find a bed for them. Private hospitals will ask them to download an app and receive an online doctor’s consult when asked about the availability of beds. Finally, they will find a bed in a government hospital where the staff is so overworked that they have no compassion or empathy left to display. Till then, the lackadaisical attitude towards preventive health behaviour recommended for Covid-19 will continue.

Why is there such disregard for preventive health behaviour, up until it catches up with them or someone close to them? Psychology professors, Timothy Osberg and Sidney Shrauger, found that people use their own experiences to predict future outcomes more than they use other factors such as circumstances, personal disposition, and population-based trends. Experts also feel that personal experience may elevate the perceived likelihood of personal victimisation more effectively than experiences of unknown others. In other words, unless Covid-19 is experienced up close and personal, the threat of the disease is negated, which is detrimental for the mass adoption of preventive health behaviour. Further, according to the health behaviour theory, people protect themselves based on their perception of the severity of a threatening event and perceived vulnerability of the occurrence of the event. Understanding the severity in general, and not just until it affects them somewhat directly, is critical.

Several Indian cities have seen a significant spike in cases since the run-up to Diwali. Festivals are celebration time and social interaction is unavoidable. However, this pandemic necessitated, first, decreased social interaction, and, second, an adoption of recommended preventive behaviour. However, research suggests, when people find themselves in a potentially dangerous situation and others around them seem unfazed, they are likely to remain unfazed.

This behaviour in social psychology, called pluralistic ignorance, refers to a situation when people, who otherwise privately reject an act, are found doing just that by observing others who are doing it and going along with it because they assume, incorrectly, that most others are fine with it. This leads to a wider display and acceptance of that behaviour and this “inaction breeds inaction”, says Catherine Sanderson, author of Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral Rebels. Accordingly, in a social setting when more people do not adopt recommended preventive behaviours, the more it confirms that when others are seen not wearing a mask, for instance, it becomes acceptable. And soon, no one cares. The lone person who probably still cares will refrain from going against the group for the fear of causing disruption. This could explain why, despite being the second highest nation with most infected cases, India is seeing a fresh spike of newly-infected cases post-Diwali.

There is a need for a frequent and consistent display of the adoption of preventive health behaviour by social influencers. When young people see their favourite Hindi cinema star or their most admired business tycoon wear a mask or sanitise his hands in public, this will, in effect, become the new social norm. Adopting these new norms is easy, far easier than finding a hospital bed to ensure that our family and loved ones are still here to hug us when this pandemic is over.

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