Picture: 123RF/MARIDAV
Picture: 123RF/MARIDAV

Throughout history, pandemics have forced changes in human behaviour, some of them permanent and lasting, others a temporary fix, and some kept in reserve to be implemented when the world is under attack.

The world learnt from each of these pandemics and the lessons have echoed down to the coronavirus crisis. For much of the 19th century, the germ theory of disease, that illness could be spread from person to person, was viewed with suspicion. Once it became accepted, the fight against TB in the US changed sanitation forever as people cared about the health of their water system.

Masks and social-distancing were enforced across the world during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. The SARS outbreak of 2003 in Southeast Asia entrenched the wearing of masks and a heightened sense of ensuring public surfaces and spaces are hygienic. Isolation and quarantine have been common, effective tools in epidemics through history.

As we have seen during this time of the coronavirus, they still are.

Change in behaviour is never easy. Our brains are wired to their routine, rituals, habits and expectations of daily life. The brain is, as a paper by the department of neuroscience at University College London found, a prediction machine.

It predicts what will happen next through experience. What worked for us yesterday to get us through today, to get us through next week, next year, the rest of our lives. It gives life a rhythm and a foundation.

Humans do not always make rational decisions. They do not always react to being told what to do ... They can also react to how they are being told

The coronavirus pandemic has not just turned those predictions upside down, as a New York Times article in November put it perfectly: “Our brains are literally overburdened with all the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Not only is there the seeming capriciousness of the virus, but we no longer have the routines that served as the familiar scaffolding of our lives.

Things we had already figured out and relegated to the brain’s autopilot function — going to work, visiting the gym, taking the kids to school, meeting friends for dinner, grocery shopping — now require serious thought and risk analysis.”

Change of any kind is hard. Some have described the reaction to it as akin to grief. It brings anger, confusion, fear and uncertainty.

Behavioural change during a pandemic requires the creation of safety and risk protocols in developing our new routines. There has already been so much change and, during this festive season, much of the tradition of the time, seeing large groups of family and friends, travelling to our parents and loved ones, will be very, very different as the coronavirus surges through SA.

Small changes can make big differences to the safety of ourselves and others. The Solidarity Fund’s “Don’t be a Mampara campaign is asking South Africans to incorporate three things into their routines: keep wearing a mask properly; keep social-distancing, and keep avoiding large indoor gatherings.

The premise is simple: look around you. It’s about respect for the health of ourselves and others. Do you feel safe? Are you looking after the safety of those around you? Are you strong enough to change and to encourage change? Are you caring enough to be respectful of the dangers of the coronavirus?

How can this campaign and each South African encourage change? With what Prof Richard Thaler, one of the founding fathers of behavioural economics and a Nobel Laureate, calls nudge theory. Nudges take the barriers of the biases that inform our prediction-making and thus our construction of routine, and offers alternatives to make the right decision — not the one we want to or are used to.

We learn this from a variety of prompts: posters, social-distance signs on floors, mask notices in shops, sanitiser stands and, most importantly, the behaviour of others.

Humans do not always make rational decisions. They do not always react to being told what to do, there may be push-back at what they feel is an infringement on their individuality and freedom. They can also react to how they are being told. The way to get this message across is to be inclusive, caring, and mindful. As Thaler said in 2019: “If you want people to do something, make it easy.”

At this time of year, Covid-19 fatigue is a very real thing. The country has been in a testing and dangerous place since the end of March. We do not know when it will end and, so, we need to learn from the pandemics of the past, to change, adapt and respect.

If South Africans change behaviours now and adhere to them during this festive season, we give all of us a weapon to ensure we make it to Christmas and New Year in 2021.

• Tlou is the Solidarity Fund’s behavioural change pillar executive head.

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