As phase 1 unlocking begins, ball now in people’s court

As phase 1 unlocking begins, ball now in people’s court

By Sambit Dash

India’s Unlock 1 or first phase removal of lockdown from Monday comes at a time when there is a massive surge in Covid-19 cases. A prolonged lockdown was hurting the Indian economy, which had been slowing down even before the pandemic began, and it would not have been pragmatic to continue with the lockdown.

While a lockdown in itself would not cause the virus to vanish, the basic tenets of social distancing, wearing of masks in public and washing hands with soap frequently would help limit its spread. But one look at the marketplace and the story comes out clearly that caution is thrown to the winds. If we are to fight coronavirus, this attitude must change.

Fatigue has set in

It is true that the systems are getting fatigued after months of being put at heightened alert. Public health systems and administration have been working under extreme pressure and the fatigue is showing. While that is natural to happen, the important component of public behaviour cannot be lax. The gains made in these months can easily be frittered away if things go back to the previous normal.

With no vaccine in sight and no effective treatment (let’s not get to prophylaxis hydroxychloroquine), Indians cannot afford to lower their guard. But behavioural change is hard to come by. In his famous book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes two types of decision-making process that we humans use.

System 1 is the unconscious and intuitive mode and is executed without thinking deeply and that is the one that is deployed in day-to-day activities. System 2 on the other hand is influenced by reason, is analytical, is slow and is controlled. While the pandemic is a massive disruption, the everyday decision-making is still largely done by System 1, which is predominated by the thought of avoiding something uncomfortable and that to which we are not used to – like wearing a mask for longer period of time; or washing hands with soap and in a particular technique, or not talking to a group of friends surrounding a motorcycle.

Fresh thinking

It is time for fresh thinking when it comes to messaging and aim it at both Systems 1 and 2. As an example, while the voice message before calls did serve its purpose to create awareness and convey seriousness of the pandemic, its continuance will soon usher irritation (that is if it has not already).

While awareness campaigns are going on in full swing, it is not translating into change in public behaviour. Mask has become the new helmet. Like helmets adorn the elbow or the rear mirror stand or the petrol tank and get on its designated place, the head, when a traffic policeman or a signal is in sight, masks too are found hanging at the neck. And this is the condition despite many States imposing fines for flouting mask-wearing rules.

However, there are lessons from successful implementation of helmet wearing or seat belt wearing examples of how regular checking, imposing fine without bribery, has brought about a positive change. Sharing facts with people and not just numbers but their relevance is a desirable way to inform.

Do’s and don’ts

Messaging at micro levels, by doctors who have high credibility, local leaders and district administrators can help. While there are plenty of guidelines of what to do and what not to do, the crux lies at the implementation part.

Political class has an important role to play in this messaging. A cursory look at the way mask is worn by ministers when they come before TV cameras does not espouse confidence. Then there are cases of a legislator meeting a group of supporters after being diagnosed positive for Covid-19, a Health Minister of a State holding a massive rally, MPs holding large meetings and jumping quarantine; and all of these while flouting best practices. If leading by example was one job that these ‘netas’ had, they are failing at it.

Preventing ‘cluster formation’ is the need of the hour. Since it is a basic scientific fact that crowded places act as spreading venues for the virus, the decision of opening religious places thus looks odd in the scheme of things. And there are many such examples. If there is anything we need to be guided by, it is sound science. Nothing else is going to help. Countries like Spain, Italy and Germany have initiated their lockdown removal phase when there is a declining trend in the number of cases.

India’s case seems to be different. The role of public is paramount in this peaking phase of Covid-19; a refresh button needs to be hit to ensure that they adhere to safe practices.

__ The author is Senior Grade Lecturer, Department of Biochemistry, Melaka Manipal Medical College (Manipal Campus). He comments on public policy, healthcare and issues of social interest. He tweets at @sambit_dash

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