Governments are still not giving clear enough messages to the community on social distancing and the virus.
The message from all leaders is that if you do not need to go out then stay at home. But it is not clear enough what “need” means.
It is clear enough that we need to go out to buy food, or travel to and from work (if we are still working away from home), or to look after some relative, or friend, who needs our assistance. But haircuts are still permitted- do we really “need” to have a haircut? Do we really “need” to go out for exercise?
We could let out hair grow or cut it at home. We could do exercise at home. Perhaps not as well. But we could do it there. So why then are boot camps of up to 10 people still permitted? Why is golf permitted? Why is a walk along the beach, in a park or around the block permitted as long as social distancing is observed?
I am not necessarily saying these things should not be permitted. I am just saying they are not consistent with the general principle to stay home unless you really, truly need to go out.
Governments are trying to create a general principle (stay at home). But then to provide exceptions to that principle. And the exceptions are often unclear or contradictory. When the exceptions are not observed, in the fashion governments prefer, then the governments resort back to the general principle.
Daniel Andrews was understandably upset at the conduct of Victorians who went to St. Kilda beach and failed to observe social distancing- let’s use the better term “physical distancing”.
But his criticisms did not focus on the failure to observe physical distancing once the people were at the beach. He said that those on the beach should not have been there at all because they did not “need” to be there. Well, why were the beaches open at all then if not in the expectation that people might go there as allowed under the current restrictions?
Beaches have since been closed by councils so that now someone who wants to go for a jog or walk along the beach while observing physical distancing cannot do so. Maybe this is a necessary sacrifice if we cannot rely on people to all observe physical distancing when at the beach.
The going out situation is also complicated by what should occur when family members go out together. Family members are not expected to observe physical distancing within their own homes. Or if they are, this is not apparent from the messaging. So, are they expected to observe physical distancing from each other, as well as from the rest of the world, once they venture past their front gate? Is a parent expected to at all times be at least 1.5 metres away from an infant child? I do not think so.
Governments might well object to these criticisms by saying people should use common sense. But sense may not be as common as we like to imagine. And the current circumstances are unusual. Common sense does not seem to be proving itself to be a reliable means of delivering the conduct governments want to bring about.
Italy’s 60 million citizens can now only leave their houses for a handful of reasons—to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy, for instance—and need to carry a document stating why they are outside, where they are coming from, and where they are going. If caught breaking the rules, they can be fined about €200 ($215).
Instead of the more gradualist approach implemented by the US and, until Monday (March 23), by the UK, Italy has copied China, imposing strict limits on movement and gatherings as soon as cases started to spike. Both lines of action have been criticized, either for being too lax or too severe.
Over the past two weeks, Italian authorities have caught more than 100,000 people outside for no good reason or lying on their forms. On Tuesday (March 24), the government debated increasing the fines to between €500 and €4,000 ($540 and $4300).
I am not necessarily advocating the Italian or Chinese approaches, though I suspect we will end up there and then wonder why we didn’t go there earlier. In any event, it should be pretty obvious by now, if it wasn’t obvious from the beginning, that when people do venture out, significant proportions of the population do not properly observe physical distancing. This might be because the rules are too confusing, or the situation is not being taken seriously enough, or for some other reason.
Hopefully, there might be some improvements in behaviour over time with repetition and refinement of messaging. But there is a real likelihood that inadequate observance of physical distancing when people have not stayed home has already further spread the virus. Mixed messages are not the only reason for the problem. But they have contributed to it.