Suffocated by the face mask
“The government’s COVID-19 policy was initially wholeheartedly supported by the Dutch population, despite the fact that the lockdown had a massive impact on everyone’s lives. The long-term economic consequences are also disastrous. A pandemic is a threat to the system, and apparently, we are willing to make sacrifices for it. However, support for the government’s policy is dwindling. This is partly due to the recent change in direction. In the field of safety, books have been written on how to persuade people to follow rules. Policymakers seem to lack this knowledge. Therefore, the shift in policy regarding face masks undermines the credibility of this policy and, consequently, the credibility of the government.
What do the books say?
Research has been conducted since the 1970s on how to persuade people of an idea and influence behavior. By nature, we seek confirmation of our beliefs. We prefer to hear what aligns with our existing beliefs and selectively filter information that fits this mold. People only adjust their views when a reliable source provides information that deviates from their own opinion but doesn’t deviate too much. Kahneman and Tversky use the metaphor of an anchor. We are willing to pivot around this anchor, but only as far as the chain allows. The quality of the arguments determines the length of the chain. Once we think, ‘Why didn’t I think of that myself?’ we naturally adjust our views. Understanding why a rule exists is a primary requirement for following that rule. This is a fundamental principle of safety science.
We also have an anchor regarding the usefulness of face masks in relation to COVID-19. What is unusual is that this anchor was primarily created by the government. Supported by experts from the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment), it was communicated for weeks that face masks were not useful. There are pros and cons, and they cancel each other out. The disadvantages are mainly on the part of the wearer. A properly functioning face mask collects virus particles like a vacuum cleaner, and when you take it off, you have those particles on your hands. Reusing them is inevitable due to shortages, which leads to more contact with the mask. Therefore, it has the opposite effect. This anchor was reinforced in every press conference and widely publicized by the media.
The Turn and Confusion
There was great confusion when the government recently announced that as of June 1st, face masks must be worn in public transport. Questions from the press went unanswered. To make matters worse, inconsistent measures were added. The obligation applies only to public transport. Apparently, it still has no use elsewhere. Also, we are not allowed to wear properly functioning face masks; those are reserved for healthcare. An rejected mask, a dust mask, or a makeshift mouth cover is sufficient. To make matters worse, the virologists at the RIVM continue to adhere to their scientific standpoint that there is no evidence that it helps.”
The government campaign started 10 weeks ago with the concept of an ‘intelligent lockdown.’ A fantastic slogan that everyone was eager to embrace. There was no need for enforcers to implement the policy. Even though many could foresee the long-term disastrous economic consequences, almost everyone complied with the rules. However, things went awry when the reins were loosened. The government forgot that people only follow difficult rules when they understand their purpose. This is especially true for rules that threaten people’s livelihoods. Furthermore, people want rules to be clear and consistent. The outrage over the face mask serves as a symbol of the public’s misunderstanding of the chosen course. This leads to civil disobedience and even anger. Consequently, enforcers can only respond with repression and punishment. In the eyes of the public, the lockdown can no longer be called intelligent.
The literature on rule compliance is clear. If a rule is not followed, it may be due to laziness. In such cases, action should be taken. In all other cases, you should go back to the starting point. Is the rule a correct solution to a problem and has it been explained in an understandable way? Are the rules clear regardless of the situation, and are they feasible? Rules that cannot be explained should be scrapped or modified. A face mask as part of full body protection in an ICU is valuable and essential. A makeshift face covering on public transport is truly a disgrace.
So, dear government, retrace your steps. Adjust the policy quickly. Do not create makeshift policies yourselves; instead, listen to those who are trained for this. Above all, explain why new measures are being taken and why there are differences in implementation. There is still hope.
Brain Based Safety,