Why are so many not social distancing for COVID-19?

Over the last week a number of stories in the media highlighted people not following social distancing and quarantine protocols for COVID-19.

In Vancouver last weekend, hordes of people decided to get out and enjoy the spring weather. In Corner Brook, NL, the same person was arrested twice for breaking an order to self-isolate. And a person in Quebec City, who tested positive for COVID-19 and was told to self-isolate, went for a stroll around the neighborhood.

Here in Toronto, ridership on the TTC was down 50%, but last weekend cars still clogged the streets, families went to the parks, and friends got together for parties.

In fact, a recent Abacus poll had a frightening number of people actually admit they were not adhering to social distancing practices.

This is not to say that many people, perhaps a majority, are taking COVID-19 protocols seriously. Lots of people have not left home at all for the last two weeks and are ready to stay at home in self-isolation for as long as it takes.

Staying home except if it is absolutely essential and necessary to go out is what is required of everyone, so why are so many people not taking this seriously?

Not because some people are just stupid or bad

There is a tendency to attribute anti-social, and in this case dangerous, behaviours to stupidity or the “few bad apples” syndrome. This is on display in the Twitter hashtag #COVIDIOTS, in which people post images or anecdotes to shame those not practicing social distancing.

But while shame and ostracism have some power to compel better behaviour, attributing anti-social attitudes to simple stupidity misses the root causes and potentially limits buy-in for collective efforts. And unfortunately it also provides clear justification for authoritarian and draconian approaches to enforcement.

It is not that some people are inherently bad or stupid, but that people have been taught particular patterns of behaviour and attitudes that get in the way of social solidarity.

Is it surprising that a generation of millennials who have been cast into precarity, who have never had the benefits of unionized employment, who have seen their social security net dismantled, might be cynical of a call to participate in a collective project of social solidarity?

Is it surprising that a generation of baby boomers who have been handed every benefit and shielded from any harm might assume this current crisis cannot touch them?

Is it surprising that a society predicated on the idea that a small number of powerful people are allowed to take liberties with the safety and security of everyone else might not be well equipped to enact widespread collective care?

Is it surprising that a political culture that tells people the limit of their involvement is voting every four years, and in which grassroots politics is written off as so much virtue signaling, might not be ideal for mobilizing a population?

Is it surprising that telling people to stay at home and also telling people to keep going to non-essential work might cause dissonance and scepticism?

Is it surprising that people distrust governments and institutions of all kinds when those same institutions so often fail them?

What to do next

These rhetorical questions are based at least in part on generalizations and oversimplifications. But what I am gesturing toward are a few of the socially-oriented reasons Canada is ill-prepared for a crisis like this and why significant numbers of people are not taking seriously their moral duty of collective care.

But pointing these things out is not a solution.

The solution that government will likely take, based on the idea that stupid behaviour by the bad apples needs to be stopped, will be an authoritarian approach. Some examples of this that are already in operation are snitch lines, fines and arrests, and imposed quarantine regimens.

Given the time-constraints of a burgeoning pandemic and the urgency of necessary collective action, such authoritarian measures may well expand and will likely be cheered on by many.

My own view, and as I discussed in a previous article, is that promoting an ethics of collective care and social solidarity is a better motivation for action and will yield better long-term results, because buy-in is based on altruism rather than discipline and punishment.

For a strategy of social solidarity to work it needs to be demonstrated, and some of this important work is already happening in mutual aid networks springing up across the country (Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal).

And social solidarity needs to be shown especially to the most vulnerable: to people experiencing homelessness; undocumented people, migrants, and refugees; people with disabilities; racialized people; people in poverty; and all the marginalized groups in our communities and country.

Showing social solidarity – demonstrating it – is the best way to build social solidarity.

So let’s stop pointing fingers at the supposedly bad and stupid people who do not follow the rules. Instead, let’s look for ways to demonstrate the kind of collective care and social solidarity that we need.

Photo: Gerry Green, Twitter.

One Comment

  1. Marilyn Reid
    May 17, 2020

    A very good explanation of why people are not self isolating. It’s hard to break habits and we’ve been trained for the last 40 years not to think about the Greater Good or our membership in Society.

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