Why are so many not following COVID-19 physical distancing rules?

People who have never been shown social solidarity are ill-equipped to enact it
Photo: mauro mora
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Over the last weeks, a number of stories in the media have highlighted people not following physical distancing and quarantine protocols for COVID-19.

In Vancouver, hordes of people decided to get out on a weekend and enjoy the warm weather. In Corner Brook, Newfoundland, 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 instead went for a stroll around the neighbourhood.

In Toronto, ridership on the TTC was down 50 per cent, but cars still clogged the streets, families went to the parks, and friends got together for parties.

In fact, a recent Abacus poll showed a frightening number of people admit they are not adhering to physical distancing practices.

This is not to say that few people are taking COVID-19 protocols seriously. Many individuals have not left home at all for the last few weeks and are ready to stay in self-isolation for as long as it takes.

Staying home except for essential trips out is required of everyone. Why are so many people not taking this seriously?

Patterns of behaviour

There is a tendency to attribute anti-social, and in this case dangerous, behaviours to stupidity or a “few bad apples.” This is on display in the Twitter hashtag #COVIDIOTS, in which people post images or anecdotes to shame those not practising physical 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 limits buy-in for collective efforts. And, unfortunately, it also provides clear justification for authoritarian and draconian approaches to enforcement.

In our society people have been taught particular patterns of behaviour and attitudes that get in the way of social solidarity.

Is it surprising that millennials — many of whom have been cast into precarity, never had the benefits of unionized employment, and 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 baby boomers — many of whom 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 virtue signalling, 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 at all that people distrust governments and institutions of all kinds when those same institutions are a source of harm (see here, and here, and here) for so many?

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 the 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 and the urgency of necessary action, such authoritarian measures will likely be cheered on by many (if not most) people in the country.

My own view, as 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 threat or deterrence.

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 (such as in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal).

And social solidarity needs to be shown especially to the most vulnerable, including people experiencing homelessness; undocumented people, migrants, and refugees; people with disabilities; racialized and Indigenous people; and people in poverty.

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

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.

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