A few days ago, my friend Nancy and I were talking about how we’re all adjusting to this new normal (a term used to exhaustion that it is already grating on my ears), as we carried our groceries back to our condos. Yes, we were lucky–alive and well, not yet driven to the brink of desperation, like those spilling out in the streets and being threatened to be shot down by the police.
But to be alive is not just the goal, I argued. We might as well be living in some weird fictional dystopian place…or North Korea. Being a hermit and being a solitary prisoner may seem similar superficially, but the difference lies in the element of choice.
(I know I have often mulled over the concept of free will, so perhaps we could say that presence of choice, whether illusory or not, is important.)
The enhanced community quarantine is a zero-sum situation: Survive by staying at home, or suffer.
With the extension of the quarantine, we are close to pushing everyone to the brink.
People crave for something transcendent, something that offers us meaning beyond just mere survival. While we’re seeing now that the less privileged are so eagerly rushing out of their homes in search of food, other people will do the same eventually because of boredom. Humans are, after all, novelty-seeking by nature . That’s why unless the government (not just our government, but all the others) puts out concrete action plans to curb this pandemic soon, people will risk their lives, motivated by the possibility of new experiences and the hopelessness that the contracting the disease is inevitable anyway.
I’m reminded of the scare tactics communicators had implemented to curb the HIV epidemic, a lesson which I find very applicable to what’s happening today (I even wrote about this in a Rappler article, during the time I was the administrative head for HIV advocacy organization The Red Whistle.)
Quoting the Yale University study, “Applying Persuasion Strategies to Alter HIV-Relevant Thoughts and Behavior“:
“Fear arousal does not necessarily lead to the adoption of health recommendations. In some cases, it can produce the reverse effect, as illustrated by a study in which a cohort of Australian gay men exposed to the ‘grim reaper’ advertisement subsequently reduced safer sex behaviors. Although the study design did not explore the mechanism by which this dramatic effect occurred, the authors concluded that images suggesting that no one can escape contracting AIDS and that death is inevitable for those who are HIV positive may have triggered denial and helplessness.
Threat appeals arousing sadness as well, especially those calling upon death or suffering, may be counterproductive in that this state leads to decreased self-efﬁcacy in terms of the behavior promoted and, hence, a greater reluctance to adopt safer behaviors despite greater perceived vulnerability.”
While threat, guilt, and shaming will work for now, these sticks will eventually lose their power. That’s why brute military force is an unsustainable approach in the fight against Covid-19.
What would work in the long run is offering options for people to reduce the risk of contracting it, coupled with proper medical interventions that can assist those who will eventually get it.
In short: People will take risks, because people want to live beyond just mere existence. Anyone who refuses to see that doesn’t understand human nature very well.