It is lamentable that after two years we are still battling an insidious COVID-19 pandemic as the virus travels far and wide, constantly mutating, and wreaking havoc across the global community.
Nations have been critically tested, having to recalibrate their policies and regulations on a regular basis. With the emergence of the virulent omicron variant, many governments are reintroducing the suite of solutions adopted in the early stages of the pandemic, such as lockdowns, social distancing, and travel restrictions. However, such interventions are unsustainable in the long term and have been detrimental to people’s general wellbeing.
It is becoming increasingly important for health authorities to emphasize the need for personal responsibility to avoid infection and transmission of the virus as an added layer of intervention. Since the onset of the pandemic, public health campaigns related to COVID-19 have been prudent, pervasive, and persuasive. The roster of recommended public health measures included wearing masks, regular hand washing, cleaning and disinfecting personal spaces, social distancing, testing, quarantining, and vaccination. But infection rates are still soaring as many individuals neglect such public health guidance.
Many countries are designing detailed roadmaps for how to mitigate viral transmission, while broadcasting crucial public health information on how people can prevent infection and transmission. For instance, the Australian prime minister urged individuals to exercise personal responsibility to protect themselves and others, rather than fall back on a “culture of control and mandates” imposed by government agencies. The Singapore government is carefully transitioning toward easing movement restrictions by implementing safe management measures designed to boost vaccination rates, ensure compliance with sanitization procedures, and control crowd sizes in high-traffic areas. Its public messaging continuously cautions people to be vigilant and to exercise social responsibility. Previous disease outbreaks in Japan and South Korea, including the 2003 SARS and 2009 swine flu epidemics, have ingrained a culture of collective responsibility toward the wider community through basic protective practices, such as mask-wearing and personal hygiene.
These are indeed prudent approaches, since no rulebook can be effective without the compliance of those to whom it applies. The COVID-19 pandemic has riddled our lives with countless moral decisions in which we are required to act responsibly, sensibly, and altruistically when it comes to interacting with our families, colleagues, elderly relatives, or vulnerable individuals. In such a novel situation to most of us, we are forced to constantly reevaluate our actions so we can be deemed “responsible.” Many people have struggled with increased anxiety, stress levels, depression, and mental health challenges caused by the many lockdowns and restrictions imposed during the pandemic. Lockdowns have negatively affected a number of important areas in our lives, such as access to education, employment, health checks, social connections, and entertainment.
With all that said, a balance between personal responsibility and supportive government policies is needed to suppress the virus’s transmission. Many people were not incentivized to adhere to COVID-19 guidance, and in some instances faced dire consequences. In some countries, infected employees were unable to apply for sick leave without the threat of a pay cut or dismissal. Students were not able to migrate their learning online in the case of possible infection by their colleagues. Businesses were ordered to shut down, rather than operate under strict hygiene measures and staff adherence to vaccination requirements and national guidelines. It is crucial that government policies encourage compliance with national public health measures without risking the livelihoods of individuals.
It is important for policymakers to gain valuable insights from behavioral theory on how best to encourage desired behavior among the general population. Interesting areas to explore within behavioral theory include breaking down public health messages into clearer and easier actions, reducing the efforts related to testing or vaccinating, designing rewards or sanctions based on desired behavior, capitalizing on social networks to exert pressure on non-compliance, encouraging people to consider others when making decisions, and identifying certain barriers to adopting public health measures.
The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team — the “nudge unit” — has published interesting research on how to change people’s behavior in response to the pandemic. In an experiment on boosting vaccination rates in Colombia, designing direct messages that elicited trust from healthcare professionals on the general benefits of the vaccine versus its rare side effects were favorably received. It was estimated that an additional 2.4 million Colombians would get vaccinated if such a concept were applied to the entire adult population. In another UK trial on understanding the barriers to getting vaccinated, researchers found that many individuals were deterred from receiving the vaccine by practical inconveniences such as their inability to spare more than 30 minutes to travel to their appointment, inability to book an appointment online or by phone, and inability to travel safely to a vaccination site.
We should continue campaigning for personal responsibility, with the support of relevant government policies that encourage us to do so. By acting responsibly, we can rest assured that our actions will have positive effects in steering the course of the pandemic to an end.