Why people relax and wear face masks less when the number of cases rises
Yesterday I saw one of those things that make me exclaim "Only in Romania!". There was a pharmacy and in front of it there was an old lady waiting her turn to enter, because there can't be too many people inside. Next to her, like a few feet away, there was a maskless man puffing away on a cigarette, his smoky exhalations reaching the masked old woman as she was trying to protect herself and the people in the pharmacy.
And it made me more attentive to people around me. Bands of maskless high schoolers, with the loud talking, fake swagger and hysterical laughter typical of their age and need for attention were happily walking on the street, not a care in the world, their bravado, as idiotic as it was, clear on their faces. Then groups of parents, masks on their chin, smoking and talking to each other as they supervise their children playing, blocking access ways where people have to squeeze between them in order to pass. I know those people, too. They already believe that they have been exposed as much as they could be, that trying to protect themselves when their children literally exchange spit and snot is futile. Then the drivers, happy that they don't have to wear masks inside their own car, but pretending to forget to use them even when they have to get out to buy something or to get home. Meanwhile, the police has found some specific sweet spots where they hunt for people not doing their duty regarding the pandemic, ignoring all others. And of course, the noseholes. People who wear their masks because it's mandatory, but only on their mouths, because they breathe through their noses.
And yes, all of these are selfish assholes, but that's not my point now. These people are contributing to the rise of infections, but only a few weeks ago, when the rates were plummeting, they were careful with the masks, the distance, everything. The first and simplest hypothesis on why this happens is that as people stop wearing masks, infections start rising, and it surely does explain a lot, but it's not enough. These people could have relaxed weeks ago. Why now?
My theory is that as schools opened, the number of people not wearing masks on the streets increased. Whether due to parent fatigue (let's call it that) or idiotic bravado or because some of them are too small to wear masks, children have skewed the proportion of people being responsible. And like a switch being flipped, other have started copying the same behavior. It's not even something conscious. I have difficulty believing people are actually reasoning that if a four year old doesn't wear mask, they should stop, too. It's a social phenomenon, a monkey see, monkey do thing. This has nothing to do with charts or numbers or public announcements which clearly show that we have now reversed our trend and the percentage of sick people is rising again. Another subconscious trigger is that more light is coming from the sun as we head towards spring. People attach darkness with crisis and light with things getting better. And yes, again, without thinking about it.
This means several things. One of them is that communication of the facts doesn't function as it should. This is on the media and their panic inducing way of reporting things. They only discuss the bad things, the shocking things, not the good ones. Numbers don't matter for people who have lived in fear for months. At one point or another they are going to break and act out. The solution is to reward people when things are going well, to inspire rather than scare people off. It would have been easy to understand and feel what is going on if, after weeks of smiling news anchors congratulation the population for their efforts, they would have turned sad and announced the trend is reversing. But they don't do this and that makes them responsible.
Second thing is that statistically people are barely aware of their existence. Like automatons they live their lives and copy each other's behaviors without a single thought. If prompted, they will find rationalizations for their actions after the fact, then feel resentment towards the person that forced them to make the effort. There is no solution for this, I am afraid. It falls on the authorities to be aware of this and act preventively to ensure a healthy proportion of people looking like they are doing the right thing. Note: looking like. This can also mean good propaganda or spin. Who would have thought that I would ever advocate for that?
Finally, this cannot be turned into another cat and mouse game, where the authorities are punishing people when they catch them, so people do bad things when the police is not there. This is not a carrot and stick situation. The ingrained distrust of authorities and petty selfishness we learned during the Communist era makes traditional measures from the government fail miserably or even backfire. This is the most difficult thing yet: change the ways the system works in order to reward people for their good work. This is anathema to Romanian life and politics, but it must be done. Social responsibility needs to be bred back into our national DNA. Otherwise we will remain a nation of assholes like the guy in the image.
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