Counselling psychologist and mental health freelance writer Niamh Delmar writes about personal responsibility, compliance and complacency on Ireland's road to recovery from COVID-19.

A year ago, it seemed as if we really were in it all together. Co-operation was high and a sense of community was palpable. Scenes from Italy exposed the cruelty of COVID-19 while people singing from balconies reminded us of the strength of our human spirit. Scientists and Health Care workers became local and international heroes.

However, one year on, the landscape has changed. Societies have become more divided, inequalities uncovered and people traumatised. A global tragedy has taken or intruded on many lives, while lockdown fatigue has set in. The last few months have revealed a national lethargy as people are emotionally and physically worn down.

PPE health worker
"A global tragedy has taken or intruded on many lives, while lockdown fatigue has set in"

While important, personal responsibility, on its own, has failed. As we are currently witnessing, the curve has not been flattened despite Ireland having one of the strictest lockdown measures in the EU. Vaccination roll-out, updated COVID prevention strategies, delayed hotel quarantining, a robust test and trace system are some of the significant factors that boost our individual behaviours.

The Christmas fall-out was not just about personal responsibility, it was also about permissible travel which brought in the new variant. However, people cannot mindlessly depend solely on directions from leaders. It is up to each one of us to keep informed and take safety precautions. Individuals are responsible for their own behaviours.  

In society, responses vary widely to a crisis, and common sense is not always a given. Guidance is needed. We can each ask ourselves:

  • What is my legacy from this pandemic?
  • How do I want to remember myself as having behaved, contributed and helped during this pandemic?
  • What actions have I taken to help my community?
  • How would I feel if I passed on Covid to a loved one and they became unwell?

We have learned about the individual and the collective. We have hard evidence that we are interconnected with nature and with each other. Rather than personalising issues, when people think in a more collective way, a shared social identity develops. This encourages people to support each other and mind the most vulnerable.

A collective perspective contributes to minimising loss. In general, while a person may bend some rules and take some risks, they do not want to impose risks on others. People engage in washing hands and wearing masks not only because of implications to themselves, but to others. 

woman wearing mask
"A collective perspective contributes to minimising loss"

The more that people understand the rationale for restrictions, the more they adhere. Messaging is fundamental to compliance. Positive motivations have impact. We need to feel there is some choice, with an emphasis on what we can do.

A collective commitment and political trust increases compliance. Research shows that people who are personally complacent and distrustful of authorities are much less likely to comply. When ambiguity about risks is reduced, more compliance occurs, so clarity in messaging to the public is essential. Mixed messaging is detrimental to societal co-operation.

Contradictory directives lead to bending of the rules. When we find it hard to fathom why certain aspects of society are closed or open, we resent and resist. Witnessing inconsistencies leads to weariness and the bending of rules. Cognitive dissonance discombobulates the mind as we wonder why we can do this but not that, or why that place is open but not the other.

An example of non-contradictory guidelines would be allowing compassionate travel as well as essential travel, or allowing more essential items to be bought such as getting a young child measured and fitted for shoes. A communication strategy without compassion doesn't work.

The New Zealand approach has been successful as it combined directions, with meaning and empathy. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden is an example of empathetic yet communicative leadership which has gained widespread public confidence. Research shows that message framing has a significant impact on public compliance.

friends meeting outdoor wearing masks
"Contradictory directives lead to bending of the rules"

Studies have found that another important predictor of compliance is perceived efficacy. When we believe that adhering to measures will be effective in the protection against COVID-19, we follow guidelines more. Social influence also plays a part in complying. People are influenced by peers, the workplace, family and neighbours to comply or not.

External disapproval also increases compliance and there is a contagion effect to comply or disregard guidelines. Survival may block full compliance among people who are under pressure to pay bills and keep afloat.

Professor Luke O’Neil has pointed out that harm reduction is a more effective way to gain compliance. He explains how pandemic fatigue gives way to decreased compliance and gives the example of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s when people got fed up with abstinence messaging. Officials then moved to harm reduction strategies, such as safe sex campaigns. He proposes telling people what they can do safely in the pandemic, such as outdoor activities.

Instead of " stay home", messaging in this framework could be "Only meet under three outdoors: wear a mask, sanitise and keep your distance." An individual’s level of concern is another contributory factor to increased compliance. According to Pete Lunn of the ESRI, worry goes up when numbers rise and our level of worry predicts behaviour.

"Studies have found that another important predictor of compliance is perceived efficacy"

It is evident the differences in our behaviours from the first lockdown to the most recent. A recent social activity study recorded the public response to guidelines. It found a higher level of mobility with approximately half the adult population not meeting people outside their household, one quarter meeting up with one or two others and another quarter with three plus. There are misperceptions among some people that they meet fewer than others.

Complacency can set in as we get overused to certain measures, or to the virus itself. So we have more close contacts, travel that bit further or have visitors to our homes. Or we may forget to wash our hands, be mindful not to touch our faces or not keep our social distance.

Special occasions lure some people into believing 'just this one time’ will be alright. Bubbles and pods become clusters. Over time, people may become desensitised to the deaths, those in ICU or long COVID symptoms. Reports solely focusing on statistics contribute to this. 

woman wearing mask
"There are misperceptions among some people that they meet fewer than others"

Social Psychologists have shown that people tend to underestimate danger and think the worst will happen to others. We can get lulled into a false sense of security and drop the guard. Initially, people were very mindful of the two metres apart and staying at home, but that has eased.

While wearing masks, sanitising and washing hands have been mostly maintained, surveys show that more movement, interactions, and having visitors in homes has increased. It is evident that there is less social distancing.

As lockdown fatigue sets in, people may slip up or forget. Boundaries get pushed as citizens feel psychologically stretched or have an overwhelming need to see family or friends after being separated too long. Hitting that lockdown wall is understandable and we need to be motivated to continue to follow guidelines.

An efficient vaccination roll-out has a major influence on gaining societal trust, co-operation and keeping the momentum up. However, The WHO have warned Governments and Citizens about complacency with the vaccine roll-out. The Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has expressed concern that there is a misperception that the pandemic is over. While COVID vaccine will play a significant role, according the WHO’S emergency expert Mike Ryan: "Vaccines do not equal zero COVID".

WHO'S emergency expert Mike Ryan: "Vaccines do not equal zero COVID".

COVID-19 is not an individual matter. When a society collectivises, lives are saved. People comply more with clear, consistent and empathetic messaging. Harm reduction campaigns get more buy in from the public and mitigates risk.

Complacency increases risk. We all want certainty, for society to re-open and every sector says their sector is safe. Scientists tell us that nobody or nowhere is safe, until most are vaccinated. We need to find a position where we are not overly optimistic or pessimistic,

To open up society and recover psychologically, it is essential to get back on track cohesively and be guided by consistent and effective leadership. 

- Written by Niamh Delmar

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.