To stop the spread of the coronavirus, governments ordered over 3.9 billion people, more than half of the people on the planet, to stay home and practice social distancing. So far, the orders seem to have helped slow the spread of the virus and reduce the number of deaths. But the orders have also put open and democratic societies in a bind.
The governments of open societies now find themselves in the precarious position of having to decide what their citizens can and cannot do. And of course it’s not easy for citizens either—we are not used to governments curtailing our personal freedom. With the negative social and economic effects mounting, maintaining the social distancing marathon in open societies is going to be a challenge.
The good news is that up until now, people in most open societies have complied with the social distancing measures. According to cell phone data Google gathered, people have fundamentally altered their daily patterns according to the measures. In Spain, for instance, there has been a 92 percent drop in retail and recreation activities, 85 percent fewer visits to parks, and 84 percent fewer public transit trips.
The governments of open societies now find themselves in the precarious position of having to decide what their citizens can and cannot do.
The bad news is that we are just at the start. While this initial compliance is noteworthy, it must continue for a very long time. According to a recent study, it is likely that social distancing measures, such as asking people to stay 6 feet apart when in public spaces, will continue to be necessary in waves through 2022 and maybe even until 2024.
In order for governments to promote public health effectively, they must ensure their citizens abide by the orders, without turning their open societies into police states. Insight into how people interpret and respond to laws can help governments walk this tightrope.
One factor governments would be wise to pay attention to is legitimacy—the degree to which citizens trust that their government protects their general interests and does so in a way that is fair, appropriate, and unbiased.
Thus far, governments have taken a three-pronged approach to ensuring compliance: moral appeals, reduced opportunity, and deterrents. They have asked people to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable elderly and the overwhelmed medical workers, with New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo publicly calling rule violators insensitive, arrogant, and disrespectful. They have reduced opportunity for the virus to spread by closing down bars and restaurants, canceling events, limiting the number of people that can be together (New York City went as far as to remove basketball hoops). Finally, many governments have increased the police presence and instituted fines (France has dished out 700,000 fines so far) in order to deter people from violating social distancing rules.
In order for governments to promote public health effectively, they must ensure their citizens abide by the orders, without turning their open societies into police states.
The problem for governments and citizens is that these three approaches are unlikely to last long enough to ensure the virus doesn’t make a comeback. The power of moral appeals will wane over time as more people grow used to the threat it poses (sunny parks and beaches don’t help). From an opportunity perspective, inevitably, countries will also take baby-steps to revive the economy and society—like opening up movie theaters, restaurants, and workplaces (and bringing back the basketball hoops), which means more interactions and more chances for the virus to spread. And decades of social science has shown that there is little conclusive evidence that the severity of punishment effectively deters deviant and criminal behavior. In fact, the threat of punishment only works if there is a high degree of certainty that if you commit a crime, you’ll be caught. For deterrents to work in our current predicament, we would need millions more police officers and cameras watching our every move. As open societies, this is something we are legally unable and collectively unwilling to enact.
In our open societies, to win the long-term battle against this horrible virus, governments need a different approach to ensuring voluntary compliance with public health orders. They need to focus on legitimacy.
Why do people voluntarily comply with the measures even when there is limited enforcement, even when they have the opportunity to break the rules, even when they disagree with the measures, and even if abiding by the measures costs them socially and economically? Research reveals that people are more willing to comply with rules when they believe the rules are made and enforced in a legitimate manner.
Legitimacy requires that people participate in the decision making about how the measures are created and enforced. Ideally, truly open and democratic societies would excel at ensuring legitimacy. But these are no ordinary times. Governments in crisis-mode may not want to involve the public. Israel has, for instance, started to use “spy technology” to track civilians’ phones to trace the spread of the virus. Notably, it did so without approval or oversight from Israel’s parliament. When officials in open societies make unilateral decisions without public involvement, they undermine their legitimacy which is required for voluntary compliance.
Legitimacy also requires that people trust the authorities to be honest and transparent. Yet, long before the crisis, some leaders in open societies started to normalize lying. Nowhere is this clearer than in the United States with President Donald Trump. He said the virus was not to be feared, that the crisis was under control, that everyone can get tested, and that he was not to blame for disbanding the federal epidemic taskforce. False, false, false and false again. Contrast that with German Chancellor Angela Merkel who as early as March 11 warned her citizens to brace for what was coming, stating that “60 to 70 percent of the population will be infected.” And in a nationally televised speech, she explained how hard this was going to be: “Since the Second World War there has not been a challenge for our country in which action in a spirit of solidarity on our part was so important.”
Building legitimate coronavirus measures requires healing our partisan schisms, at least temporarily.
And it is not just the fact that leaders lie, some also directly attack media critiques of their lies, ironically calling honest reporting “fake news” or “nasty questions.” The continued onslaught of the truth in open societies makes them ill-prepared to develop legitimate measures that ensure voluntary compliance.
The discussion of legitimacy raises the issue of what to do about the increasingly polarized and partisan politics that mar our era. We live in a time of Remain versus Brexit, Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter, pro-choice versus pro-life, the 1% versus the 99%, and localists versus globalists. Increasingly, politics has become about identity—those we do not identify with have become our enemies. And when we see them as our enemy, and when we solely read and watch media news that strengthens such views and polarizes even bare facts, we are unable to perceive their actions as legitimate—as being fair, unbiased, and supportive of our general interest. Building legitimate coronavirus measures requires healing our partisan schisms, at least temporarily.
Yet, so far, this has not happened. Rather than banding together, politicians and pundits across the globe continue to see the crisis as an opportunity to score political points against the other party. But in doing so, they undermine the legitimacy of the measures that are put into place, which in turn weakens long-term compliance, and puts us all at greater risk. In fighting each other, we forget that there are only two sides here: the people and the virus.
Benjamin van Rooij and Adam Fine draw on the research in their forthcoming book, The Invisible Code: Why Law Fails to Improve our Behavior (with Beacon Press), and on the multi-country study they are conducting about compliance with the COVID-19 mitigation measures. The first paper is available online on SSRN and PsyArXiv.