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Changing Behaviour to Prevent COVID-19: Let’s Try Something Different

Cambio comportamiento prevencion COVID
Photo: Edu Bayer / Ajuntament de Barcelona

On any given summer evening, it is not unusual to find 500 people milling about in Plaça Espanyola, the nerve centre of the La Torrassa neighbourhood of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat. But last week, as I passed through on the way to my home four blocks away, I counted barely 50 people—10% of the usual crowd. From one side of the square, two stern-looking and well-equipped police units surveilled the scene. Across the way, seven citizen service officers—supposedly responsible for informing the populace about COVID-19 prevention measures—stood around chatting amongst themselves. And why wouldn’t they be twiddling their thumbs? You don’t need persuasion when you have the threat of brute force.

Coercion is certainly one way to enforce social distancing and masking. I will not second-guess the cost of this approach in terms of democratic freedoms, nor will I attempt to adjudicate the trade-off between public health and fundamental rights. But it is simply untenable to try to impose preventive behaviours in high-risk areas through the intensive and continuous use of law enforcement agencies. Moreover, it is unclear whether this approach is very effective: people always end up finding loopholes.

It is simply untenable to try to impose preventive behaviours in high-risk areas through the intensive and continuous use of law enforcement agencies

Surely there is another way to achieve the same or even better results without draining the public coffers and damaging the social fabric.

Here are some ideas about how to do this:

  • Try to understand the social context you want to influence. Our neighbourhoods are complex realities influenced by a multitude of factors that combine to create what we now call diversity. They are also non-static, evolving as events unfold. Therefore, we cannot expect the same solution to work everywhere, all the time and for every group, whether defined by age, gender, socioeconomic status or national origin.
  • Approach populations without prejudice or preconceived notions. It is tempting to interpret other people’s behaviour through the lens of clichés and stereotypes such as Latinos live in the street (like we Mediterraneans always have) and poor people are just trying to get by (like everyone else, at the moment). Such preconceptions distort your perception of your surroundings and reduce others to caricatures whose behaviour can only be changed by fiat.
  • Treat your neighbours as peers. Be humble and avoid stigmatising language. If you want to change people’s behaviour, the first step is not to inform, but to listen. Open up two-way communication channels so that people can see that you want to know what they think, what they feel and what they want. You won’t be able to solve all their problems or field all their complaints—and you will have to acknowledge this—but you can create a climate of mutual trust, which is essential to progress. If you start by calling them irresponsible, they will tune you out.
  • Use whatever resources your interlocutors provide. Recruit citizen service officers from the community who speak the same language (literally), use the same codes and understand local social networks. Identify influential figures in the community and get them involved in the response. Tap into the most appropriate communication channels and use whatever languages are spoken locally.
  • Reach agreements, make commitments, provide funding and share responsibility. Identify local organisations that are active in culture, sports and recreation, as well as groups representing particular nationalities. Invite them to collaborate. Ask them, in consultation with their stakeholders, to put forth realistic proposals tailored to the local community to help change behaviours and prevent COVID-19 in their area of influence. Agree on the most justified activities, secure funding and make future public support contingent on results.
  • Accept that changing behaviour takes time and is more difficult for some people than for others. It is impossible to get everyone, everywhere to behave how experts would like them to at all times. This was not even possible during lockdown, despite the threats. As is usual in public health, the most we can hope for is to reduce risk and harm. Experience tells us that community engagement is the most effective way to achieve this.

You may be thinking: These measures require an entirely new mindset and cannot guarantee immediate results. You are correct. But you know what the alternative is, and it isn’t pretty.