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The masking and scanning challenge

by Dr Dougal Sutherland, Clinical Psychologist, Victoria University of Wellington and Umbrella Wellbeing
Old habits die hard. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. These proverbs ring true for us as we encounter a new community cluster [1] of Covid-19. Put simply, Kiwis aren’t in the habit of wearing face-masks or scanning-into restaurants and shops we visit. We have seen some spikes in these behaviours but they appear to be temporary changes in our behaviour promoted by a change in how real we perceive the threat of the virus.

The government is faced with the challenge of how to ramp up its threat message to the public quickly and effectively enough for us to start doing something new, such as using the covid app.

Under-emphasising the threat has obvious implications. But over-emphasising the threat could lead to people distrusting government communications, which could also lead to reduced app and face-mask use.

Some have asked why the government simply doesn’t legislate for us to use the tracing app. Again, making this behaviour mandatory could erode trust in the government and could also produce psychological reactance, which is where people do the opposite of what they’re being told to do precisely because they are being told to do it.

Tapping into people’s intrinsic motivation to do something new is the most likely path to get results. During our first Level 4 lockdown the government appealed to our sense of community and compassion for others. Staying at home was as much about keeping others safe as it was about keeping ourselves safe.

No doubt there are a large number of government officials currently racking their brains of what’s the next psychological lever they can pull to make us want to wear masks and scan in. And perhaps this is the best we can hope for, at least in the short-term, as trying to establish new norms in public behaviour can be a lengthy process taking months if not years to embed.

by Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington
As this week’s events [2] illustrate, there is obvious value in making mask use mandatory on flights and other transport settings. It is hard to see why the Government has held back from taking this potentially life-saving prevention measure. In the interests of transparent decision-making from Government, New Zealanders need to know the reasoning behind this decision.

It’s good to hear that the latest border system failure is being reviewed. In particular, I hope that there will be epidemiologists’ eyes on the review of risks for border workers, both in their workplaces and in their communities.

Workers in border-associated occupations are different from the rest of us in terms of risk because of how much exposure they have: even if they’re feeling well, their risk of being infectious remains substantial. A systematic analysis of how to protect these vulnerable workers and their contacts (and eventually, of course, everyone) would be time well spent.

These two articles were first published yesterday by the Science Media Centre.

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