Throughout the pandemic, the government and leading health authorities (e.g. PHE) have faced the challenge of adequately articulating the justifications for COVID-19 control and prevention measures.
One key example of this is washing one‚’s hands for 20 seconds. This is no arbitrary number but rather is the duration of the chemical reaction by which soap incapacitates the COVID virus. This explanation has not been publicly available, with the consequence that many people who are trying to do the right thing are nevertheless washing their hands incorrectly (i.e. for less than 20 seconds).
The consequence of failing to explain justification is that measures like washing hands, wearing masks, and lockdowns, can only be enforced through coercive power, be it that of the police, public disapprobation, or fear.
None of these is particularly effective. People will rebel against authority and find loopholes in rules. Further, fining people can have the adverse effect of enabling the very behaviours one wishes to prevent by replacing the moral imperative with an economic price signal.
The use of public shaming (e.g. the rhetoric of ‚’Covidiots‚’) to enforce behaviours is particularly troubling. It reduces us to a virtue-based society, acting for the sake of being seen to act in accordance with morality, rather than any rational or material justification. This can be seen in the widespread misuse of face-masks (not covering the nose, for instance).
Societies that can only respond to coercion and fear are not resilient. COVID-19 will pass, but how long until the next pandemic? In the climate and ecological emergency, we will see other disasters, too. We cannot respond to them with enforcement. People need to understand what is happening and why in order to act for themselves within the context of their own lives.