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Why some ignore coronavirus distancing rules: a psychologist weighs in

Last Updated Apr 12, 2020 at 8:53 pm EDT

Summary

City officials say they are frustrated with people not taking social-distancing seriously


Psychologist: “We’re not just staying indoors, we’re cutting out every single element that makes us human"


Changing a point of view may take more than a fine, as public health messages take a while to enforce


Despite coronavirus shutdowns and public health appeals to stay home, Toronto’s parks have remained busy. The city says it’s still having the same conversation every day with hundreds of people who are not taking physical distancing seriously. But that comes as no surprise to Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman.

“What we’re asking people to do is a very large task,” says Abdulrehman, a clinical and consulting psychologist based in Winnipeg. “We’re not just staying indoors, we’re cutting out every single element that makes us human, that ties us to one another.”

While Toronto’s normally busting, now empty and eerily quiet streets show us that behaviours can change. Our new COVID-19 reality also makes it glaringly apparent we have simply never experienced anything like this before.

“That uncertainty can both make people increasingly anxious or increasingly complacent,” Abdulrehman says.

You can still go for a walk through the city’s parks. But amenities like playgrounds and park benches are off-limits. And from officials, the message remains: if you are going out, you’re supposed to keep at least two metres away from anyone you don’t live with. It’s the kind of close contact the city is trying to eliminate to reduce the chances of spreading the virus.

Getting caught breaking those rules could cost you up to $1,000. But with no frame of reference for this pandemic, our new normal becomes harder to enforce.

“The whole uncertainty of not knowing what we’re dealing with is really contributing to that,” says Abdulrehman. “Add to that…public health messages take a while to enforce.”

Take for instance smoking rates in Canada. Approximately half of Canadians smoked in 1965 according to the University of Waterloo, compared to about 15 per cent in 2017. Driving down those rates has taken years of messaging from public health experts. “We don’t have that luxury of time,” Abdulrehman says.

Bylaw officers have handed out more than one hundred tickets since April 4, all involving people mingling in groups and in closed areas.

“It makes sense that people are having a hard time with it. The dilemma is where people might take a complacent point of view that this is not going to impact them.” Abdulrehman suggests changing that point of view may take more than a fine.

“One of the things we could do is be very clear and very specific. If we’re not interpreting things in the correct way,” he says, “it’s definitely going to impact our emotions which will impact our behavioural choices.”