A year into the pandemic, the Philippines last March 19 recorded 7,103 cases of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) – one of the the biggest single-day count in the country since the pandemic began. Last March 22, it breached the 8,000 cases mark, until it tapered to 5,867 new cases logged last March 23 when the government implemented the two-week general community quarantine (GCQ) bubble that is in place from March 22 to April 4.
Although the spike in Covid-19 infections might be linked to the emergence of more contagious new variants of the coronavirus, the Department of Health (DOH) also blamed Filipinos for not sticking to health safety protocols as they once had.
We, Filipinos, have been branded as ‘pasaway’ or stubborn, as evidenced by the crowded market places and other public places, with improper use of face masks. This is true since the start of the pandemic last year.
A review of the photos from news agencies in the country from the onset of community quarantines until early this year revealed pictures of how crowded markets and groceries were, how people used their face masks incorrectly, and how Filipinos partied without observance of protocols during the Christmas holidays.
Even social media is littered with posts where groups of friends dine together and temporarily remove their face masks for the photo op, while others totally disregarded the protocols, totally putting their trust on their friends, loved ones, and colleagues.
These behaviors were more evident recently more than a year into the pandemic due to the unintentional phenomenon is “caution fatigue.” This occurs when people show low motivation or energy to comply with safety guidelines,” according to Jacqueline Gollan, from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, as reported by CNN.
“It’s reflected when we become impatient with warnings, or we don’t believe the warnings to be real or relevant, or we de-emphasize the actual risk,” Gollan added. “And in doing that, we then bend rules or stop safety behaviors like washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing,” as reported by CNN.
Caution fatigue has been observed in previous or everyday life situations, such as when you ignore an alarm of some sort and don’t take it seriously because you’ve heard it before. This mental state happens for a few reasons, including chronic stress, decreased sensitivity to warnings, and the inability to process new information with others.
But why is the Philippines showing a spike in daily Covid-19 cases when our neighbouring countries have been tapering off their daily cases? The Philippines remains the only Southeast Asian country with Covid-19 cases spike, according to the global Covid-19 tracker worldometer.
I have been observing the behavior of Filipinos as to how they conduct themselves in public and in front of others – call it crude ethnography. From our household helpers, to relatives, to friends and employees, I noticed one particular trait that may be causing the spike – it is social trust.
We Filipinos, based on my observations, remove our face mask when we know the person well. In observing my household helpers, I noticed that when they meet strangers in a public gathering, and eventually develop relationship while conversing, all removed their face masks.
This kind of social trust is what the World Values Survey refer to as particularized trust. It is the tendency of people to completely or somewhat trust people they know personally. Particularized level in the Philippines is at 75 percent +, a similar level to the US, and 86-percent level for “completely trust” family members, compared with under 70 percent in the US, according to the World Values Survey. What does trust have to do with Covid-19 spike?
A study titled “Does social trust slow down or speed up the transmission of Covid-19?” published in December 2020 published in PubMed.gov, examined the influence of social trust on the spread of Covid-19 across 68 countries between Dec. 31, 2019 and July 31, 2020. According to the results, “in countries characterized by high levels of social trust (especially the particularized social trust) or a narrower or wider range of trustees, the number of new cases is likely to reach the peak faster than in other countries.”
The author of the study prescribes that “societies may need to implement different strategies to respond to pandemics on the basis of their levels of social trust.” For instance, “with the strong tendency for compliance to social norms or rules in those [high trust] societies, people will be significantly influenced by what others are doing and which rules are imposed upon them.”
Hence, “strong restrictions against close contact and the dissemination of information through social media or networks about behavioral standards should be given, so that the societies can form the norms and rules for health behaviors immediately.”
Our country’s state of crisis has reached new high levels. New innovative and effective information campaigns to change peoples’ behavior need to be formulated and implemented urgently. We need to involve behavioral scientists and communication experts do these. And we must do it now.
The author is chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is Fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org