Distancing is easier said than done. It is a behavioural challenge to win the war against the coronavirus epidemic. Some nations have done far better than Australia.

The benefit of social distancing conveyed through an image of burnt and unburnt matches.

The benefit of social distancing conveyed through an image of burnt and unburnt matches. Supplied

It is an intriguing thought that if all of Australia could stand still for the next two weeks, the corona virus and its economic crisis would end.

This observation by data scientists is based on the assumption the disease takes 14 days to stop being infectious. If we were disciplined enough it could be all over by Easter, as President Trump hopes.

Of course, it is impossible to have everyone not move for a fortnight, but in essence this frames the social distancing challenge as one of crowd control— how to encourage 25 million people to fundamentally change their life-long social behaviours.

A rugby league match is being played in front of an empty stadium in Sydney on March 19 as Brendon Wakeham of the Bulldogs takes a conversion attempt.

A rugby league match is being played in front of an empty stadium in Sydney on March 19 as Brendon Wakeham of the Bulldogs takes a conversion attempt.  Getty

Framing the problem correctly is one of the tenets of the new wave of policy innovation governments have been experimenting with as they seek better ways to fix problems.

To a hammer everything is a nail, and for governments this typically means regulation, compliance, fines and punishment. Witness the NSW Government approach to the violence in Kings Cross to what was essentially a crowd control problem.

Enter the world of behavioural insights, nudging and crowd psychology, an area governments have only just started taking seriously, as a means to encourage good behaviours, and stop bad ones.

The hidden infection is taking days and weeks to manifest itself, which academics say means that with a high unseen infection rate, all stages of the public health action are going to seem more drastic than justified by the perception of ordinary people.

In several Asian countries where populations had seen the devastating impact of previous corona virus outbreaks, the community was ready and willing to do what was necessary.

Japan was one of these countries. A two-week containment period was declared. The government reinforced the need for strong community discipline and action by appealing to the need for Japan to beat the virus so the Olympics could go ahead.

Tokyo’s huge train stations are again teeming, the Ginza shops are doing brisk trade, and Japan has an infection rate about of 1200 , half of Australia’s.

Sadly, the rest of the world did not have the same cultural norms or incentive to follow suit and the Olympics have been postponed to 2021.

So the behavioural challenge is to change that perception. Fast. Already we are seeing examples of what the behavioural scientists call nudges.

The concept is to encourage people to make decisions that are in their broad self-interest, rather than penalising them if they don’t act in certain way, by making it easier to make a certain decision.

“By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families and society,” says Richard Thaler, Nobel Prize winner and champion of the nudge theory.

In essence it uses psychology to drive mass behaviours. Witness this remarkably simple way to think about encouraging physical distancing to slow the spread of the corona virus by Graham Medley, a UK professor of infectious disease modelling.

“So most people have a fear of acquiring a virus. I think a good way of doing it is to imagine that you do have the virus and change your behaviour so you are not transmitting it,” Professor Medley told the BBC.

“Don’t think about changing your behaviour so you won’t get it, think about changing behaviour if they don’t give it to somebody else.”

Greek doctors had an equally powerful way to encourage physical distancing. They show patients a picture of 14 matches laid on a surface, lined up in a row. Seven are burnt, seven are not.

The first unburnt match was pulled away, stopping the spread of the fire to rest of the unburnt matches. The picture has a caption: “The one who stayed away saved the rest.”

Similarly in another corona success country, South Korea, where the whole population was strongly encouraged to wear face masks.

In western countries, the messaging has been that only sick people need to wear masks, resulting in many mildly sick people avoiding “mask shame” by not wearing a mask. In South Korea, this problem was avoided by having everyone where a mask.

At a policy level, strategic initiatives can also act to disencourage crowds. Pictures of empty streets and military style enforcement may anger civil libertarians but they act as a powerful tool to disencourage gatherings. No one really wants to go out and mingle in something that looks like a war zone.

“We control the desire to be in public spaces by closing down public spaces. Italy is closing all of its restaurants. China is closing everything, and we are closing things now, too,” Drew Harris, a population health researcher and assistant professor at The Thomas Jefferson University College of Public Health told the Washington Post. “Reducing the opportunities for gathering helps folks social distance.”

Where there has to be crowds gathering, such as people queueing for Centrelink or to pay for shopping, simple behavioural techniques can make all the difference.

Airports have long had to deal with crowd control. At a busy set of inward and outward doors at Copenhagen airport, tape was placed in a lane towards a set of outward doors to encourage a smooth flow outwards. This intervention proved even more successful when the tape colour was changed from dark green to neon green.

Hygiene has been another area where nudging has been a useful technique.

According to a member of the UK Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), Michael Hallwsworth, “a survey of 12,000 households found that washing hands with soap was more likely when hand washing was an ‘automatic’ behaviour. “

“The advice to sing Happy Birthday twice while washing hands to reach the 20 seconds required to remove viruses implicitly recognises the value of habit: since this song is so familiar to us, it is likely to proceed automatically to completion once started,” Hallsworth wrote in the Behavioural Scientist.

Similarly the same team found that poster design can strongly impact hygiene. They tested seven posters from the UK, Singapore, Italy, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, and the World Health Organisation. All seven designs showed people how to wash their hands in a procedural, step-by-step way.

“We found three designs did particularly well in terms of people remembering their key messages, rating them positively, and being more likely to say they would thoroughly wash their hands more often after seeing them,” Hallsworth said.

These top performers—Taiwan, Singapore, and the UK—all used bright info graphic designs with a step-by-step procedure for thorough hand-washing prominently displayed without too much accompanying text.

The power of celebrity has always been a winner in the influencer world and can be equally used to encourage good corona behaviour.

The 1970’s music icon, Neil Diamond’s rewrite of his famous Sweet Caroline to encourage hand washing is but one example of how effective social media can be if strategically targeted at key public health messages.

“Hands, washing hands, reaching out. Don’t touch me. I won’t touch you,” he sings in a video he has tweeted out to his large fan base.

Similarly posts by ex-astronauts who have learnt to live a solitary life have been powerful ways to make isolation more acceptable.

For governments it is important to ensure their actions match their words. Having lots of queues lining up to get Centrelink benefits while calling for everyone to stay at home confuses everyone, and is a good example where governments need to bend their regulations for the time.

Much of the Centrelink debacle could have been avoided if the ATO income and tax data could have been used to determine eligibility and automatically made people who had lost jobs eligible for a corona Centrelink supplement. That is not lawful under current privacy settings.

Less of a major change is to ensure regulations don’t insist on people having to turn up for a government service. Forbearing on applicants having to turn up and prove identity for a business licence is but one simple example where governments actions can support social distancing.

Locally these types of measures are being adopted by some governments. A spokesperson for the NSW Government Behavioural Insights Unit said “positive framing has a significant impact on decisions, with positive framing found to be more effective when targeting prevention behaviours”.

For example, by staying home and social distancing, you can help slow the spread of infection.

Social norms also drive strong behaviours. “We are heavily influenced by what others around us are doing. One of the most effective ways to promote compliance with isolation and social distancing is to emphasise how many people are already doing this.

“Images of empty beaches and public places help to demonstrate that most people are complying with social distancing and staying home where possible.”

The unit spokesperson also said salient and visible prompts in community locations drive stronger compliance.

“Prompts which are integrated within the physical environment have been proven to effectively change behaviour. In response to COVID-19, this includes visible, convenient placement of hand sanitisers and physical cues to guide people’s movement to comply with social distancing.”

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Tom BurtonGovernment EditorTom Burton has held senior editorial, and publishing roles with The Mandarin, the Sydney Morning Herald, and as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review. He has worked in Government, specialising in the communications sector. He has won three Walkley awards. Connect with Tom on Twitter. Email Tom at tom.burton@afr.com

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