From the very beginning, lockdowns — the government mandated restriction of social and commercial gatherings — have been a key tactic in fighting the global coronavirus pandemic. It is possible that if everyone followed the rules to the letter, the virus could be controlled via this method. However, as we’ve learned over the past year, the idea that people will obediently follow the rules is at best wishful thinking. Every time there is a spike in virus rates, it is accompanied by hand-wringing over why people continue to gather for holidays or to watch sporting events or attend weddings or religious ceremonies. The refrain in the public media and among the government officials is Why can’t everyone just follow the rules? One of the reasons people break the rules — and why lockdowns are less effective than they could be — is that people are not guided solely by a singular concern for their health. Indeed, connecting with others in our communities has historically been a key survival trait for human beings, and the absence of connection is consequently experienced as its own sort of pain. In other words, people have fundamental social needs which are often ignored when decision-makers formulate the guidelines for responding to the pandemic.
For instance, we have a stay-at-home order in Ontario right now, and the key message from the government is to avoid social connections outside of your household at all costs. Yet as Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General, noted in his recent book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, the pain caused by separation can trigger a search for reconnection. And when we surveyed experts in the social sciences for our World After COVID project (sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Templeton World Charity Foundation), they responded that social connectedness was among the most important ideas to focus on in a post-COVID world and right now. Clearly, there is a conflict when public health officials advocate social distancing while social scientists emphasize the need for greater social connectedness. We’ve seen this conflict play out in real life with consequences ranging from underground parties to unauthorized weddings. This is not to say that lockdowns and social distancing aren’t important — they’re critical to defeating the virus, and combined with mask-wearing they are the most reliable way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 as we wait for mass vaccination to be achieved. However, our research indicates that public health guidelines fall short due to the way rules are formulated and communicated to the public.
Behavioral science research on other crises shows social components are essential to successful navigating of crisis-related challenges. Unfortunately, when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, our governments have so far provided little to no recommendations about how social connections can be maintained. While mask wearing and social distancing are heavily promoted, there is comparatively little messaging about how to engage in appropriate social interactions via virtual means. Lack of clear guidelines creates a vacuum and promotes inequality: When no alternatives are offered, given the choice between zero social interaction and the old ways, people default to habit. Unsurprisingly, many people in Ontario and elsewhere violate the guidelines, or raise questions about the need for a blanket rule for everybody.
Economic factors further exacerbate the tensions between public health guidelines and the social needs. Bans on all forms of religious gatherings, rather than clear instructions for modifying them to accommodate social distancing, don’t prevent weddings or services from happening, they merely force them underground. And while it’s fine to tell people who can afford good internet, computers, and mobile devices to work and socialize remotely, where does that leave society’s poorest communities that don’t have reliable access to virtual means to connect? The same people who bear the brunt of frontline work during the pandemic are also the ones least able to access remote means of social connection.
There will still be many months before vaccines will bring the COVID-19 pandemic to a close. In the meantime, we must do better. Ethicists and experts in social and behavioral sciences should be brought to the table with public health officials to get a better understanding of how and when people violate norms, because the reality is that different ethical concerns often stand in conflict with each other. Acknowledging such conflicts and balancing different interests are essential for a sound, wise judgment. The dynamic of these ethical concerns varies across different cultural and socio-economic groups. Knowledge about these dynamics can empower concrete recommendations for improving public health guidelines right now.
On the surface, guidelines about lockdowns are formulated to cover everybody equally. Yet people’s circumstances vary greatly. Instead of writing blanket rules, include recommendations for what people from culturally diverse or less privileged strata of society should do if they are unable to follow them to the letter. There won’t be a perfect solution, but there probably is a better method of communicating that marries public health concerns with a realistic understanding of the need for social connectedness during periods of crisis.
Igor Grossmann is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, Canada, where he leads the Wisdom and Culture Lab. As a behavioral/social scientist, Grossmann has been working on demystifying what makes up a wise judgment in the context of revolving societal and cultural changes. Grossmann is an Associate Editor of the flagship journal for Social and Personality Psychology — Social Psychological and Personality Science, and co-hosts the “On Wisdom Podcast,” aiming to disseminate scientific insights from cognitive and social sciences to the broad academic audience and the general public.
Templeton World publishes a range of opinions and analysis about human flourishing and global issues from its team as well as outside contributors in the broader scientific and policy communities.