Coronavirus: Focus on personal responsibility is foolhardy

We are all in this together. Emphasising individual action over civic duty is a mistake

There is a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility in the public health messaging on Covid-19. The idea that individual action is capable of ameliorating a wider collective crisis is problematic at the best of times. But it is simply foolhardy to rely on it in the face of an international outbreak of a highly contagious disease.

It goes without saying that it is essential that individuals take precautions such as hand-washing and self-isolation. But the personal responsibilty messaging isn't working. Indeed this website carried an account of the failure of many people to wash their hands on nights out across Ireland over the weekend. On more than one occasion this week and last, I have felt voyeuristic as I monitored the handwashing efforts of my colleagues and students on campus. Sharing my tallies with colleagues hasn't consoled me. Apparently, things are no better in the men's bathrooms.

People who fear stigma or anger from others can be slow to get tested, so the disease has greater opportunity to take hold

And there is another problem. Everything we know about contagion says that emphasising individual and personal action during the preventative stage of an epidemic ultimately results in stigmatisation of people affected by the disease. If we convince people that the disease can be prevented by washing hands or self-isolating, it is often assumed – wrongly – that those who get the virus didn’t wash their hands or didn’t self-isolate. And so a victim-blaming mentality emerges.

This stores up problems for the delay and mitigation stage of the crisis. People who fear stigma or anger from others can be slow to get tested, slow to seek treatment and so the disease has greater opportunity to take hold. We already know there has been vitriol directed towards individuals and groups affected by the virus. Nipping any further stigma in the bud will become an increasingly important priority as we move to the next phase of this Covid-19 challenge.


Young and healthy

So why is personal health messaging not working? Many people, particularly the young and healthy, do not respond to pleas to change their behaviour. For some, if an individual action such as self-isolation becomes inconvenient, say for example when other responsibilities beckon, it won’t be prioritised. And if a message is framed as requiring personal action, when people don’t do it they realise they may be seen as dumb, but not necessarily bad. Indeed presenting the action as in their personal interest can lead people to think it is of no concern or consequence to others.

But of course, in the case of Covid-19 our action, or inaction, does have consequence for others. There has never been a moment when our individual action had such significant consequence for others. Now is the moment for us all to be fully paid up members of the national community and responsible global citizens.

People are not as selfish as they are made out to be. Every day, people go to great lengths to put themselves out for others

So how do we get this across to people? The short answer is there is a “we” in wellness. In fact when people stop thinking of “me” and start thinking of “us”, a shared, supportive and socially responsible approach to all sorts of challenges can emerge.

It is time to change our messaging. This crisis requires all to protect ourselves so we can play our part in our family, community and national group. People are not as selfish as they are made out to be. Every day, people go to great lengths to put themselves out for others. The needs of our family, co-workers and even veritable strangers are often at the heart of what we do. Messaging that emphasises who we are as parents, sons, daughters, friends, colleagues and Irish people are much more likely to yield a robust collective response.

Draining work

This crisis is going to be hard work and hard to weather. Self-isolation will be draining as we quarantine ourselves from others we care about, including family, friends, children and vulnerable relatives. Equally, it will be hard if we have to step in and take up family and co-workers’ responsibilities while they are ill and out of action. It is going to take a new level of flexibility in all of our parental, familial and occupational roles for us to overcome. Now is the time for us to start thinking about the responsibilities that are likely to be incumbent upon us all.

This new shared responsibility and collective consciousness will require us to defy some time-honoured cultural norms. We will know for sure we have turned a corner when other bathroom users humming Happy Birthday or pointing out the soap is viewed as helpful. Or when a quarantined family member incurs no wrath for failing to contribute to the domestic workload. And when confirmed cases are seen as proactive models of social responsibility. And when we all realise that we are on the same side, in this together and so the best way forward is to talk and share ideas for how we can get through this.