Is anyone still following Australia's Covid rules? Experts warn of complacency as case numbers fall

Is anyone still following Australia's Covid rules? Experts warn of complacency as case numbers fall

Health, Coronavirus

12/3/2020 7:45:00 PM

Is anyone still following Australia's Covid rules? Experts warn of complacency as case numbers fall

Leaders face new challenge to entrench Covid-safe behaviours as the public gets used to days with barely any cases

Across the country the norms of social distancing are slipping, with crowds bottlenecking when exiting train platforms and gathering in the hundreds at beaches as summer arrives.Prof Kate Reynolds, an expert in psychology from the Australian National University, says there are three key elements of public behaviours.

This means some compromises need to be made.As cases have dropped around the country, restrictions on different aspects of life have eased at varying speeds. While having a wedding may be allowed, a party of the same size in your home may not, and in NSW cafes have been open since June but nightclubs will remain closed until Monday.

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As Melbourne goes more than a month without a Covid-19 infection, New South Wales eases restrictions further and South Australia’s Parafield cluster slowly fades into memory, it seems the country is finally settling into the much-anticipated “Covid normal”. But as the perception of threat eases, experts say health authorities must find a balance between mitigating risk and keeping the public on side. Compliance with the rules and recommendations is starting to slip. In Melbourne, the once morally-forbidden act of lowering one’s mask below the nose has become commonplace, even inside, where mask wearing is still mandatory. In Sydney, where the practice was encouraged but never enforced, it has become almost a rarity to see masks in supermarkets or on public transport. Across the country the norms of social distancing are slipping, with crowds bottlenecking when exiting train platforms and gathering in the hundreds at beaches as summer arrives. Prof Nancy Baxter, head of the school of population and global health at the University of Melbourne, says there is a real risk of governments overstepping and risking widespread refusal to comply with remaining restrictions. “You saw this during the height of the second wave when the [Victorian] government were digging in their heels about continuing the curfew long after it seemed to have done its job,” Baxter says. “By not easing that, people kind of started saying ‘Well, why do we have to do this?’. It started bringing more of the restrictions into question.” Prof Kate Reynolds, an expert in psychology from the Australian National University, says there are three key elements of public behaviours. “The things that are important are legitimacy, norms and efficacy. “People need to think the reasons why they’re doing the behaviours are legitimate; they need to see that others that are important to them are doing it, so that’s about social norms; and they need to see that what they’re doing with their behaviour will have an ethical impact – that it matters.” This means some compromises need to be made. “If too much of a discrepancy emerges in people’s minds between what they see the threat is and what you are asking them to do, then it will start to erode legitimacy. It’s about being very clear and reducing the burden as much as possible on individuals and communities. If so, people will be able to maintain critical behaviours for much longer.” At the beginning of the pandemic, this was simple. There was an immediate threat, the public and leaders were united in taking action and there was a defined goal – to flatten the curve. Now, things are more complex. As cases have dropped around the country, restrictions on different aspects of life have eased at varying speeds. While having a wedding may be allowed, a party of the same size in your home may not, and in NSW cafes have been open since June but nightclubs will remain closed until Monday. Baxter says although there may be a clear epidemiological reason behind most decisions, these may not be clear to the public. On Wednesday the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, pleaded with people to remain alert and remember the basic guidance, even as she relaxed the formal rules further. “We can’t let complacency creep in, and those basic things will always be in place until everyone is vaccinated or else the pandemic is over,” she said. “Please remember hand sanitising, social distancing, testing for [the] mildest of symptoms and consider wearing a mask in indoor settings in particular.” But leaders making such appeals will find it increasingly hard to cut through, Reynolds says. “When the threat to the individual and community seems to be quite low people may be less vigilant about these things.” The chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, Prof Catherine Bennett, says Covid-19 precautions are still extremely important. “The system is constantly under pressure, we’re constantly running the risk of the virus getting in. Despite the best efforts at the borders there is a risk that the virus is still in the community and will cross those borders. “And if that happens, we just want to make that as minimal impact and as contained as we possibly can. That’s why having some level of mitigation in the community over this period is critical.” Baxter says everything may change for Victoria when the state begins accepting international flights again. “We’re now allowing Covid back in … These people are coming back from places where the epidemic is just ripping through, like the United States. So the numbers in hotel quarantine are significant,” she says. “Some of those people are going to need to go to hospitals, so that’s going to expose a bunch of people to Covid-19. Even in the best-run system, even after everything we’ve learned, there’s always going to be risk associated with that. If you have got a society that’s back to normal, it’s going to get out there. It just is. Unless things are still in place to stop the infection from spreading.” Reynolds says that although the task of convincing the public to stick to guidelines is harder now, it can still be done. “This all comes down to legitimacy. Do people think that what they’re being asked to do is legitimate? Do they think the authority asking them to do it is legitimate?” She says that to maintain legitimacy it is important to have different types of leaders sending similar messages. “Maybe it’s the politicians, maybe it’s the local doctor.” Leaders should also remind people that they are making a difference. “It’s easy to lose sight of that when you don’t have any cases but of course every day we don’t have a case – every day that there’s a doughnut day – it’s the efforts of the people that can be celebrated,” Reynolds says. “If there is legitimacy, norms and efficacy, then people can do it for a very long time. I mean, we put clothes on every day, we put sunscreen on when we go out. There are norms that govern our behaviour that we don’t get tired of because everyone else is doing them and we think it’s the right thing to do. Even if there is a cost.” Topics