Reimagining society after the pandemic: lessons about human behaviour
The lockdown has changed our lives without mercy. Schools and universities are closed across 189 countries, affecting almost 1.6 billion children all over the world. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic is estimated to put a quarter of all jobs in the European Union at risk – or 56 million. And of course, the number of COVID19 cases still rises on a daily basis. Thankfully, it looks like the restrictions put in place – no school, only essential workers on the streets, physical distancing – are ‘flattening the curve’. But if we are to avoid an unrepairable recession, we need to slowly pick up the pace again. We need to find ways to keep our physical distance while staying connected and unified.
What will life look like after quarantine? It is the question that is on the mind of most if not all of us. It is certain that many things we took for granted will now have to change. Festivals with thousands of visitors, busy markets, weekend trips abroad: when will they come back? Will they come back at all? We have never quite considered what a world might look like without hundreds of flights per day and kilometres of traffic. This essay asks: ‘what next?’ It is hard – or impossible – to make predictions about our future society because what we are experiencing now has never happened in our lifetimes. Our knowledge is provisional and incomplete.
Nevertheless, we can turn towards the science of human behaviour to explore how we can design a new society. One that is more resilient to shocks, more caring, more humane. Behavioural science is the study of why people behave the way they do, and how the environment can powerfully shape their actions. How can we create a ‘context for change’?
Preventing a second lockdown
The virus may flare up again after restrictions are removed if we do not radically change our behaviour. We will all – without exception – have to frequently wash our hands and keep 1,5 meter distance from others. The risk of transmitting the virus is currently salient – we see a rising death toll in the news each day. We see people on the streets with facemasks. It reminds us to keep our distance and wash our hands.
Once things return to post-pandemic normal, people may struggle to keep adhering to the official guidelines. We can find some explanations in our not-so-distant past: we humans have evolved to react to visible, tangible risks. We are extremely well-adapted to respond to a fire, or a dangerous animal approaching us. What we struggle with, are invisible and long-term risks. This is why we are taking limited action against climate change: it is a slow-burning problem that may really only threaten our lives in 10 or 20 years. The coronavirus currently fits in the first category. But what will happen once the risk feels more distant, once we see more people appearing on the streets? Once shops and restaurants reopen?
To really change habits, we cannot rely on information and education alone. Researchers have found that placing hand sanitizer in the middle of an entrance increases use substantially in comparison to placing it at the side. Written reminders are helpful too – especially when they are placed close to sinks or sanitizers. A recent study finds that fear of COVID19 is a strong predictor of whether or not people improve their hand hygiene. Our post-covid society will need visible and frequent reminders to bring the risk of transmitting coronavirus to top-of-mind.
At the same, we should be mindful of creating fear. Fear can be paralyzing. Fear can also stimulate xenophobia against groups of people deemed to be responsible for the spread of disease. The bubonic plague and cholera – both pandemics that killed millions of people – led to racial segregation and violence against minorities.  We most certainly do not want to recreate these scenarios – free movement and cultural exchange are treasured and essential characteristics of our globalised world.
As a society we should also realise that we are “in it together”. When some people ignore the rules by getting together for a coronaparty because they think they are not at risk of getting seriously ill, the virus will be much harder to control. To build a society that is inclusive, we need to create public health messages that create empathy. Messages that underline the duty we all have towards protecting the more vulnerable people in our society are especially effective. We should not focus our messaging too much on the individual benefit of following the rules, but on our moral responsibility to protect our families and fellow citizens.
The lessons are relatively clear: yes, it is important to bring attention to COVID-19 by putting up visible markers for people to keep their distance, placing disinfectant in public places, and reminders to wash your hands. The way in which these communications are designed is critical – they should create empathy and moral responsibility. Messages should also be clear and actionable.
Physical distancing, but social closeness
Sitting at home for weeks on end, seeing our friends and family members only via Skype or Zoom – I dare say that no-one would have predicted this reality a few months ago. The lockdown creates the necessary physical distance between people, but we need to find ways to overcome the social isolation that comes with it. Anxiety-levels are already soaring in countries like Italy, where the pandemic hit hard. The World Health Organization reports that with measures like the quarantine “levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour are also expected to rise.” Social isolation and loneliness are silent killers: elderly people who have little contact with family and friends die younger than those who are still socially active. Even if we consider less extreme effects – boredom, insomnia – it is clear that the psychological effects of the pandemic should be taken seriously.
In post-pandemic life we may still not be able to hug our friends or kiss our grandparents. It is essential to find creative ways to bring people together. At the same time, it can be exhausting to spend hours per week on a videocall with our friends or family. Forbes coined the term “Zoom burnout” to describe the emotional exhaustion that comes with video chats. Our social interactions also are so much more than long conversations with the people we know best: our so-called strong ties. We humans thrive on interactions with weak ties: a quick chat with the supermarket cashier around the corner, or a friendly nod to the postman. A five-minute chat can already powerfully improve your mood, and so can a quick text-message to a colleague or neighbour.  When imagining a society post-covid we should not forget to build in these moments of small connections.
On the one hand we see increasing levels of loneliness, and on the other hand exhaustion with constant online social presence. It might look like a paradox. But perhaps it is not – we just need to find ways to connect with each other offline again.
Opportunities: reimagining cities and services
Let’s end on a positive note. Beyond the grief that the pandemic is causing all over the world, perhaps we can take this opportunity to re-imagine the world as we know it. Collectively we have shown that we can make far-reaching changes to our habits. In Porto, traffic congestion dropped by 56% in comparison to the same month last year. Working from home turns out to be much less disruptive than managers feared. In fact, the productivity of employees might even benefit – especially once their children are going back to school. Which of these changes could and should we sustain after the lockdown is lifted?
The deputy mayor of Milan, Marco Granelli, has already announced an ambitious plan to reduce car use after the lock down. They are planning to build extra bike lanes, widen sidewalks, and impose speed limits. Taken together, these changes would transform Milan from one of Europe’s most polluted cities to a much cleaner one. The business imperative is relevant too, in Granelli’s words:“We have to get ready; that’s why it’s so important to defend even a part of the economy, to support bars, artisans and restaurants. When it is over, the cities that still have this kind of economy will have an advantage, and Milan wants to be in that category.” The OECD general secretary, Angel Gurría, also highlight the imperative for ‘green’ recovery: “Governments have a unique chance for a green and inclusive recovery that they must seize – a recovery that not only provides income and jobs, but also has broader well-being goals at its core, integrates strong climate and biodiversity action, and builds resilience.”
The pandemic has also shown the importance of a strong digital infrastructure for (local) governments and businesses. The mayor’s office of Lisbon launched a new digital platform in April, where citizens can access over 70 services. The time is ripe to explore how we can encourage everyone – also the elderly and vulnerable – to successfully navigate online services. This article started with behavioural science and ends with it too: let us use the science of human behaviour to design better and more accessible services.
Let us encourage both online and offline meaningful interaction.
Let us create an open, caring, and resilient future.
 See a live dashboard of COVID19 infection, death, and recovery rates at https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6
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 For an accessible introduction to the field of behavioural science, I recommend Dan Ariely’s book “Predictably Irrational” (2008) and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book “Nudge” (2008).
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 The Center for Healthy Minds, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, provides a series of free resources to support mental health and wellbeing for health support workers, families, and children: https://centerhealthyminds.org/well-being-toolkit-covid19
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