Until pharma solutions appear on the shelves, non-pharma measures are the best bet against Covid-19, and the success or failure of non-pharma measures depends on how lay persons perceive the threat and the effectiveness of those measures. This theme was discussed earlier this week to stress on the importance of the understanding of perception. (See BR Research’s ‘Battling corona: perceptions matter’ March 30, 2020)
In comes a new paper by Peter Lunn, Cameron Belton et al which is a rapid review of useful evidence from behavioural science for fighting Covid-19. Titled ‘Using Behavioural Science to Help Fight the Coronavirus: A Rapid, Narrative Review’, the paper is a summary of the findings of various behavioural studies conducted on the subject of handwashing/sanitisation, face touching, entering & coping with isolation, collective action and so forth.
While these insights are based on behavioural studies in western societies, and may not be exactly applicable on South Asian society, but corporations, households and the governments would be better off implementing some of the findings, or even tinkering it to their local context.
In the case of handwashing, studies (cited in the paper) have shown that education and information are important but not sufficient to change habits. “Even in acute healthcare environments, attempts to improve hand hygiene and other infection control behaviors through education and awareness have limited and short-term impacts,” the study said. This is because “by definition, habits operate mostly outside conscious awareness and are hard to break through improved education and knowledge.”
Tackling this requires creative thinking. For instance, centrally placing sanitizer in prominent public spaces (e.g. entrance lobbies), with loud colourful signs, has proven to increase its use. Or IVR response to offices and calls on mobile phone, could remind listeners with a simple question: “have you used the hand sanitizer?”
In contrast to handwashing, the paper states that there are “no proper scientific studies that evaluate interventions designed to reduce the frequency with which people touch their face.” But convenient placement of tissue boxes so people can use tissue when they want to touch their face can be helpful. Or public service messaging that nudges people to use their shoulder or sleeves to scratch their faces if they must.
The study also notes that both psychology and public health literature shows that social isolation is harmful for physical and mental wellbeing “with effects comparable to other well-known risk factors such as smoking”. In light of this, the HR departments of some big corporations are already engaging their employees in online leisure activities. Those SMEs who can’t afford such activities can at least promote their staff to check up on each other.
Some people take lightly of such affairs but for many people, even in Pakistan, social relations with work colleagues is more important that those at home simply because adults spend most of their waking life in offices, shops and workplaces rather than their homes – the bonding with their co-worker is often stronger than the spouse. Little wonder that there have been reports of increase in domestic violence in the US, while in China there have been increase in divorce rates post-shutdown.
Similarly, in the case of collection action and risk communication, the paper notes that “the more people feel part of a group or community response, the more likely they are to make a selfless contribution”. This implies that public service messaging should encourage a sense of community; big or small; and that we are in this together. Messages like ‘you can save a life by staying at home and washing your hands’ can prompt better response rate than messages simply telling people to maintain social distancing.
The need to have such sense of ownership also holds truth for Pakistan’s talk show stars and drawing room critics. Instead of saying ‘your country’ ‘your people’ ‘your government’ doesn’t have this or that or is bad and corrupt, a more effective way of communication would be ‘my or our country, people and government’. Such ways of communication that display a sense of community are more likely to drive action than communication in third person. But while the application of the findings from behavioural science may take a long time to bring about a wholesale societal change, let’s for try implement those to fight corona.