I balked at a friend’s hug last month. For a year forged in the wake of pestilence and plague, such a gesture seemed fraught. Are we still in the time of COVID? Am I over-reacting or am I under-reacting? I am never totally sure.
Spring has sprung, and as the days get warmer and evenings get longer, we are tempted with the precarious enjoyment of the fruits of our success. The weather is beckoning, and we assume that with community transmission at a record low, the danger has passed. Unfortunately, this is not actually the case as we know that the lesser the perceived risk of infection, the more likely an outbreak will occur. There are examples of this all over the globe, Victoria, NZ, the UK, Spain and France being the obvious examples. Feels to me like humans are not so great at risk assessment.
With community transmission levels so low, it seems natural to want to loosen up and to get back to life as we want it to be, those halcyon days before the pandemic, where we cried together at funerals and danced with joy at weddings. Where hugs were customary and getting on a plane to visit friends and family a breeze.
I am optimistic that we are well on our way to recovery, but cautiously so. But I don’t feel we are out of the woods yet.
Humans, when faced with the discomfort of contradictions, will often try to change their beliefs or behaviours to avoid the inconsistency, in what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. This explains some of the behaviour we see where people ignore the basic rule of physical distancing. President Trump being a case in point.
I agree with philosophy lecturer Daniel Muñoz, who believes that the best way forward is to speak with our actions, and make smart choices, so that others will follow: “We will help others trust that precautions are a good idea, and we will enforce the general perception that being cautious is to be expected. It’s not always a bad thing that we are biased towards doing what appears ‘normal’.”
Much like the two-second rule we are taught as drivers in order to maintain a safe distance between us and the car in front, we can the adopt the mindset of ‘minimum safe behaviours’ to help stop the spread of infection; washing our hands, staying one and a half metres apart, wearing a mask.
This isn’t a binary choice between one thing and another, like the economy and our moral duty to keep others safe. We can’t complain about a slow economic recovery if we fragrantly break the rules. They are part of the same solution. The more we care for others, the lesser the chances of infection. The lesser the chance of infection, the more vigilant we need to be in following COVID-safe behaviours. The more vigilant our behaviour the more chance there is of economic recovery.
It’s not just for our own health or the health of others that we should make smart choices. There is joy in seeing friends, families, communities back outside enjoying our public spaces. Our parks, beaches, and cities are where people are meant to meet and live their lives. Seems to be the most salient argument to stay safe.
So even though the cases in my home state of New South Wales have been relatively low for some weeks now, I follow the medical advice. For me, even a partially distanced world is better than one in lockdown.
Our data confirms this. In New South Wales, people are out and about at 85 per cent of normal levels. Nationwide (bar Victoria), traffic on our roads and visits to shopping centres are back to 90 per cent of normal levels. Two out of every three commuters are travelling on public transport again, and our cities are beginning to hum with the renewed energy they bring with them.
What these statistics signal is not a return to our pre-COVID lives, but that we are successfully adapting to living with the virus.
We can manage the health crisis by following the simple rules of physical distance, hand washing and wearing masks and by doing so help our economy recover, one of the most important drivers I believe in creating good outcomes for all.
As someone who naturally greets people with a handshake, hug, or kiss, I am teaching myself to be more circumspect in a bid to keep myself safe, my family safe, our jobs safe and our economy buoyant. In these times I take pleasure in the simple fact that we are out and about and not totally shut off from each other.