Risk Perceptions while exiting lockdown
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
Rapidly changing behaviors while exiting lockdown
Repetition of tasks over decades reduced our risk perception towards many daily activities - like driving or crossing roads. However, the recent pandemic pushed us to perceive risk towards otherwise normal activities much more carefully. But these forced evaluation of risks are likely to be very temporary and associated perceptions can jump back to previous levels too quickly. Here is where leaving lockdown, even in a phased manner, becomes a supercritical and vulnerable phase of rapidly changing behaviors.
Assuming a linear journey of drop in risk perception would leave a lot of loopholes in the exit strategy. Despite good efforts, exit strategies can leave a lot of people in dissonance about how exactly they should go about their lives. The choice of words in communication from authorities can influence this dissonance to a great extent. Authorities can communicate better and be better prepared while anticipating fluctuating levels of risk perceptions in the society.
Policy makers should acknowledge that people might engage in a spectrum of low to high risk activities as lockdown restrictions start easing. A campaign like #stayathome, communicated as the best practice to reduce transmission, has been widely internalised and practiced to a good extent. One of the factors that played in favour of adherence in this case was visibility and resulting shaming by the community. The downside to this process is that it creates a binary perception of adherence. This can translate to - 'I can’t go near people in public spaces, but I can do other things'. The unintended consequence is that many other behaviors (perceived as low risk) may go unnoticed while aggregately leading to continuous transmission.
What can be improved?
While being cognizant of this spectrum of risk perception (non-binary), measures and communication should be contextual in order to avoid overall transmission. Risk is not perceived in numbers and is definitely not binary but is processed and acted upon as a feeling within a context (changing environment). Authorities should categorically communicate ways of reducing transmission risk from different behaviors - meeting friends in the park, visiting lakes, going to local grocery shops, small private gatherings for occasions etc.
Different regions might decide to open up different activities. The accompanying communication should reflect transparency in terms of reasoning behind them. This can address the need for communicating measures that are contextualised to varying levels of risk-taking behaviors. These measures could be categorical sets of preventative measures one can take in order to stay safe while engaging in said activities.