Coronavirus: Varadkar’s call-to-arms vests power in public action

Clear messages and sense of collective survival key to behaviour change, experts say

GPO on O’Connell Street: each person’s chance of contracting the virus not only depends on their own behaviour, but on the behaviour of others. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

GPO on O’Connell Street: each person’s chance of contracting the virus not only depends on their own behaviour, but on the behaviour of others. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

Think movies. Think Superman II or Independence Day.

One social psychologist likened the collective spirit that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tried to stir in people on Tuesday night in the fight against coronavirus to the citizens of Metropolis helping Superman fight General Zod or a fictional US president rallying citizens to fight aliens intent on destroying the human race.

It does not seem out of place then that Varadkar in his call-to-arms TV address to the nation evoked superheroes when he paid tribute to medics given the frontline role they will play in battling rising Covid-19 infections from the virus.

“Not all superheroes wear capes, some wear scrubs and gowns,” said Varadkar of the healthcare workers “who will need us to do the right thing in the weeks ahead”.

Some critics lashed Varadkar for not saying anything new, particularly given the anticipation that more severe restrictions on free movement might be coming. However, this misses the point of the State’s response that will depend heavily on more and more buy-in from the public as this national health emergency becomes more and more serious.

Given that no health system in the world could cope with the consequences of a worst-case scenario outbreak where a public would take no precautions, the capacity of the Government, the State and the people to manage this crisis is rooted in the science of how people behave.

Common good

The Taoiseach’s 1,830-word speech ran on the theme of “we are all in this together”. He mentioned it twice more in his 11-minute address. This was an unprecedented request to accept sacrifices for the common good.

“The Taoiseach really played a blinder in appealing to people’s sense of a collective confidence and a collective self,” said Ian Robertson, psychology professor at Trinity College Dublin.

The public will sacrifice “an awful lot of material benefits and the normal rewards of everyday life”, said Robertson, if they feel part of a common effort.

“People will put up with almost any ‘how’ if they have a ‘why’ and the ‘why’ here is the survival of the nation and its health and economy. That is a very powerful and potent ‘why’,” he said.

“If you can get that ‘why’, then people will put up with enormous amounts over a long period if they can feel like everyone is in this together.”

It allowed Varadkar to flag more stringent measures people will face: the “cocooning” of the elderly and long-term infirm who will have to stay at home for several weeks, the emergency stretching into the summer and contingent plans for the Leaving Cert and college exams.

The Economic and Social Research Institute has said the behavioural response to Covid-19 is “unavoidably collective”: each person’s chance of contracting the virus not only depends on their own behaviour, but on the behaviour of others.

Sacrifices to make

It says the response hinges on three things: leaders communicating why people are being asked to make sacrifices; people feeling it is a national collective effort or else they are unlikely to act; and punishment – even social disapproval will suffice – for citizens who do not comply.

“If everybody understands why what you are asking them to do is best for all, they will make sacrifices to do it but they have to see it clearly why it is the best thing to do,” said Pete Lunn, head of behavioural research at the ESRI.

The UK government’s response to the pandemic has floundered because there have been mixed messages with experts contradicting each other on what is the best collective strategy, undermining the importance of communicating what role the public should play in the response.

Stricter measures, taking away more individual freedoms, will require more clear messages and evidence of the benefits, such as explaining why reducing an infectious transmission rate of one person to 2.7 people to one person to 2.4 could reduce the number of positive cases and ultimately the death toll given the devastating exponential growth potential of this disease.

“If they are going to stop people literally leaving the front door and walking on their own in the open air or with close family members, they are going to have to articulate very, very clearly that that behaviour is going to make things better for everybody,” said Lunn.

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