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A new phase, a new reality. The virus is there to stay for sometime. Sometime can be spent on being locked down or locked in, but, not for long. Countries are grappling with the reality of the virus being a way of life and that life without a virus will not be possible for a while. Also is the pressing realization that life without living and earning is almost suicidal. The trend all over the world is that as the numbers of the virus infection become manageable the gradual easing of the lockdown takes place. The challenge is that people who are locked up for weeks on end will they or will they not be able to change their behaviours to work, travel and earn safely. That is the dilemma countries have to face if they want to continue combating the physical, financial and psychological devastation caused by this pandemic.
In the first phase of the pandemic more emphasis was on political will and leadership. We saw different countries acting out different strategies to impose lockdowns and ensure that people stay home to minimize the damage. Some countries were early, some late and the political leadership was held accountable for its proactive or reactive behavior. After nearly two months of country shutdown even the richest countries cannot afford not to work and earn. Thus, nearly every country is now opening up its economy. The onus thus now shifts from the government to people. There is no way a government can control the behavior of its public even if it has strict laws. We have seen in the most developed countries educated public not adhering to the safety procedures. That is why there is a dire need to communicate and engage the public to cooperate in this critical phase of opening the economy yet controlling the surge in numbers.
The challenge of public cooperation in adhering to safety standards is three-fold. Firstly, human nature rebels on being caged and being warned about the fearful consequences. Corona has created such fears and phobias in the minds of people in the last few weeks that they will overreact to the opening up of the economy. Some will be paranoid and some will just go overboard with going about as if nothing ever happened. Secondly, the pent up demand for moving freely, buying freely before another lockdown comes will create exaggerated rush in streets and shops. Thirdly the desperate need for shopkeepers and office owners to make up for the lost sales and production will make them overlook precautions. These are the expected downfalls of the easing up of the lockdown and countries like Japan, Singapore and Germany are already experiencing it. What is required is a strategy of behavior modification to influence the public at large to help in bringing this change in habits:
1. More Information and Education - The first step is awareness. The advantage of this virus is that it is happening all over the world at the same time. The communication strategy on the safety measures is almost similar in every country and every channel in the world is mentioning it. The first phase was globally communicated effectively.
The second phase of easing lockdown and movement in public places is the real challenge. Maintaining social distances and wearing gloves and masks etc is still a message not being taken seriously in many countries outside the Far East Region. The level of discipline and the level of education also make a difference. The western societies are more educated but less disciplined and are thus not adhering to these instructions while going to parks and beaches. The Eastern societies like Pakistan are less educated, have narrow shops and market places and thus social distancing is still not an acceptable practice.
That is why some serious communication adaptation is required to make people alert on the danger of another spike. The effective use of ring tone messages of mobile phones should now shift from washing hands to keeping public place measures like masks, gloves and 6 feet distance when going out.
2. Stricter Tracing and Law Enforcement - Behavioural change is always dependent on positive and negative reinforcements. A system of rewards and punishments on the required behaviours is mandatory to make the required practices part of the social habits. China with its extreme laws and South Korea with its mandatory testing have made people adhere to these phase-2 precautions. Countries need to figure out what level of vigilance and inspection is required to make people adhere to these SOPs. From having robots in parks monitoring and warning people to keep the distance to having policed areas is the choice countries have to make.
In Pakistan, public went wild in markets trying to shop for Eid. What is required is a two-fold strategy. Firstly, make the shops accountable by shutting them up if they are not obeying the instructions and secondly, making people more aware and using peer pressure to regulate their habits.
3. Developing Change Role Models and Champions - The other important part for phase-2 as the lockdown is eased is doing a role model campaign both on TV and in the community. As was done with the washing hands campaign countries need to use celebrities to create messages for saving lives keeping distances in public places.
For the more educated classes celebrity endorsements using actors, cricketers, civil society heroes should be used. They should convey the mask/gloves/sanitizer/6 feet distance public precautions required in going to public places and shops. For the less educated people local influencers like mosques, etc., should repeatedly tell people about going in public with these SOPs.
A pandemic of this stage cannot be resolved by either just government action or public reaction. Forced changes in behavior are successful only in the short run. More permanent behavior changes, as is required in coronavirus situation, have to be done through constant public communication and engagement. Peer pressure, community influencers talking about it in the local style and language have track record of attitudinal modification. Ultimately the success of living and living safely with this virus depends on whether people will or will not have the will to change and live carefully and conscientiously till a treatment or vaccine becomes a reality.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020