The COVID-19 Half-Time Regroup

It might not have been loud enough to hear, but a subtle half-time whistle blew over the past week. Three months into the biggest behaviour change project Ireland has ever participated in, we discarded our jerseys and took a breather. Longer evenings and the promise of summer weather could not have come at a better time for the public or for the National Public Health Emergency Team.

Well-being data from the CSO in April showed that more than twice as many of us felt downhearted or depressed compared to the same period in 2018. The lockdown was impacting our mood and compliance with restrictions was already slipping. Reasons to continue a ‘pandemic penance’ were limited. Even the Gardaí announced that they would be taking a light touch approach to enforcing new coronavirus measures. The balance between mental health and physical health needed to be found.

A half-time interlude in our efforts against COVID-19 was never planned. The opponent in this contest is cold and clinical and it does not tire or succumb to fatigue. We cannot be distracted or suffer a slump in confidence. Ireland did not buy into the ill-fated thinking of Boris Johnson and his ‘Nudge Unit’ that delayed the introduction of strict measures, fearing behavioural fatigue. But there was surely a recognition from those in charge in Ireland that willpower is a limited resource, and, like a muscle, it can tire without rest.

Despite our heavy investment in footpath paint, fluorescent signage, and electronic placards in the first 12 weeks, the scientific community increasingly suggests that meeting people in the outdoors is relatively safe. Outdoor activity and sunshine providing the perfect opportunity to recharge our resilience batteries. The only thing missing: explicit permission.

Enter the topless Taoiseach’s torso from stage left. Pictures of Leo picnicking in the park were like a wink from a teacher hinting at a difficult question that will not be on the exam. It was a subtle signal to get outside, enjoy the sunshine and rebuild our resilience in relative safety. It is still only half time. We do not know when we are going to need this resolve in the months ahead.

It is now known that the three C’s of closed spaces, crowded places and close contact facilitate the spread of the virus more than socially distant picnics on freshly cut grass. Public Health experts are acutely aware of the possibility of a second wave in autumn and winter, and a lockdown in mid-November would require an entirely different level of resolve.

As indoor settings such as pubs, restaurants and clothes shops open further, more nuanced behaviour changes in familiar environments will be required. 

Like a frustrated Irish driver in the right-hand lanes of continental motorways, employees and customers will find themselves modifying automatic habits in deceptively familiar environments. Tensions may rise and mistakes will likely be made by employees feeling overwhelmed with their new ways of working. Clearly flagged one-way systems in offices, closed fitting rooms in clothes shops and table service in pubs all offer the roadmaps required to navigate safe interactions in a closed environment. Construction sites now have hi-viz wearing “COVID-19 Compliance Officers” on site. Their role will not be easy. Our heart will go out to the barman trying to convince their locals that they cannot sit at their seat at the bar. It will be like trying to tell a child that birthday cake is not for breakfast.

Face mask wearing is the new behavioural vaccine reducing risk in closed spaces. Like taking a morning vitamin C tablet, developing this habit shouldn’t test our resolve but can keep us and others safe. As they open, successful businesses will find effective ways of communicating and implementing new keystone habits like these. Our tools in this fight are our new behaviours, our tactics, rugged adherence to new norms.

As the whistle blows to signal the start of phase 2, we know that a second wave or backwards step would come as a disappointment to us all. Hopefully, recent respite gives us the resolve to regroup at this critical stage meaning extra-time can be avoided.

Pádraig Walsh MSc, BCBA is a Behaviour Specialist and CEO of www.actualiseacademy.com. He is co-creator of The Behavioural Vaccine podcast available across all podcast networks.

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