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The Compliance Conundrum


Both the rule followers and the rule breakers seek to hasten the end the COVID-19 pandemic—they just disagree on how to do it

“The pandemic will only end once people comply with the mandated restrictions.”

“The pandemic will only end once people stop complying with the mandated restrictions.”

Only one of the above statements can be correct, and a large segment of the population believes it’s the first one. It’s obvious, right? The more we comply, the less the virus spreads and the sooner we end the pandemic. If you belong to this group, you will naturally feel frustrated—or burning mad—at the rule breakers. You would like nothing more than to put Covid behind you, but the selfish people on the other side of the fence are “spoiling things for everyone.”

Now let’s scoot over to the other side, the them side. This faction believes that, while compliance may help flatten the curve, it doesn’t help bring back normalcy. Au contraire, they argue: a compliant populace empowers the government to impose the next set of restrictions, setting a self-perpetuating cycle in motion. The way out is not to comply just a little longer or harder, but to start pushing back. 

Alan Richarz, a Canadian privacy lawyer, takes this stance in an opinion piece published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The government “will never walk back its emergency powers of his own volition,” he writes. “And why would they? After two years of fomenting terror and division among the population, they have cultivated a solid base of support.”

This noisy support, Richarz argues, gives policymakers free rein to impose whatever restrictions they please in an endless game of move-the-goalposts. The pro-restriction camp would retort that it’s the virus, not the politicians, that compels the goalposts to move. Richarz sees it differently: “Until public opinion turns sharply against government overreach, we will continue to live in an artificially prolonged state of emergency, beholden to the whims of bureaucrats and elected officials.” 

The most visible symbol of the compliance wars is the mask. In defending the use of masks, proponents invoke not just their mechanical properties, but their social function: to remind people that we’re in a pandemic and need to maintain our vigilance. 

Mask objectors draw on a parallel logic to support their position: the longer we continue to wear masks, the more entrenched they become, thus weakening the collective resolve to bring back normalcy. The only way to prevent masks from becoming permanent is to stop wearing them. Same goes for all the other restrictions, say the objectors: they won’t end until the people push back.

In fact, pushback can work if enough people band together. When the province of Quebec instated a curfew on December 31, 2021, the prohibition to walk dogs during the curfew period outraged enough Quebeckers that the government scrapped the rule. Public pressure also bore fruit in France in the summer of 2021, when collective indignation at the incoming COVID green pass led the government to lower fines for noncompliance and change the rules for shopping centers.

Zuby, a UK musician who has sounded alarm bells about government overreach throughout the pandemic, encourages people to reflect on their personal compliance limits. “In light of recent events, it’s extremely important for each individual to determine where their line in the sand is when it comes to compliance with mandates,” he Tweeted in July 2021.  “At what point would you say, ‘No. I refuse to comply with that’? Because this is all just a compliance ladder.” 

The science of compliance

The inclination to follow or disregard the rules rests on several factors. One of them is personality. Among the big-five personality traits—extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism—conscientiousness appears to track most reliably with compliance. In the context of Covid, researchers have linked conscientiousness to higher levels of adherence to restrictions such as in-home sheltering and social distancing.

The propensity to comply flows not just from your individual traits, but from the group you belong to. For example, women tend to comply more than men, although the reason is anyone’s guess: Has evolution made women more cooperative? Do they comply because they see other women complying? Or do women simply pay greater attention to their health? Whatever the cause, you’re more likely to find Covid rule breakers among men than women. 

Not surprisingly, your feelings about the coronavirus carry a lot of weight in your approach to the rules: if you’re scared, you’ll comply. Indeed, a UK study conducted early in the pandemic found that anxiety about the virus predicted compliance more reliably than moral or political orientation, leading the investigators to conclude that emotions trump sociopolitical influences.

Beliefs also come into play. It goes without saying that people who trust their government will comply more readily with restrictions imposed by said government. Finally, compliance changes over time. In the first two months of a pandemic, you’ll likely see more compliance than two years in. People get tired, and there is only so long they’ll keep driving on a highway without expecting to see an exit ramp. A recent Belgian study of adherence to Covid measures lends credence to this phenomenon, concluding that “compliance becomes more fragile over time.” 

Compliance theater

Compliance has yet another layer of complexity: the gap between what people say they do and what they actually do. During a week-long period early in the pandemic, only 3 percent of respondents to a UK survey admitted to having left the house for non-essential reasons. When the researchers posed the same question anonymously, however, the figure jumped to 29 percent. Evidently, fear of judgment led over a quarter of respondents to clam up about their discretionary excursions.

We all know people, celebrities or otherwise, who broadcast their virtuous behavior on social media while privately bending the rules to suit them. One of my colleagues comes to mind: after a string of Facebook posts about the moral duty to follow pandemic guidance over the 2020 holiday season, she celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends from different apartments in her Montreal condo, despite gatherings being forbidden at the time

This self-deception shouldn’t surprise us. The drive for approval is baked deep into our DNA, and it takes an unusually thick skin to withstand the opprobrium that rains down on us when we flout group norms. Most people who bend the Covid rules—which is practically all of us, if you look long and hard enough—will either deny or rationalize their transgressions, as did my colleague: “We all lived in the same building, so it was like our own social bubble.”

On the flip side, breaking the rules becomes easier if you see others doing it. In fact, people in Zuby’s camp have argued that the social end of the pandemic—the point at which society decides to move on—won’t happen until a few “advance troops” stop complying with the restrictions, giving the sluggish majority permission to follow suit. 

More compassion, please

Which leads me to a personal dilemma: will I be part of the advance guard or the obedient majority? Where do I draw my own line in the sand? Back in October 2020, a photo of a Haredi man carrying a placard saying “We will not comply” made the rounds of social media. Do I want to be like him? Do I want to be something else? These questions keep me up at night.

For the time being I continue to keep my distance and wear my mask when required, even when walking out of a restaurant after a two-hour unmasked meal, but I sometimes think I’m too damn polite for my own good. (My impeccably mannered mother made sure of it.) After numerous conversations with friends on team Zuby, I have come to understand—and to some extent, share—their belief that the end of the pandemic will come from the people, not from a specified drop in case counts or from government decrees. As such, I see my role as a translator of sorts, helping the frustrated majority understand what drives the resisters to push back.

On a policy level, understanding why some people refuse to comply can help decision makers craft messages that generate more goodwill—and perhaps even a little more compliance—among the rule breakers. To this end, a paper exploring what leads people to disregard Covid rules, published in Scientific American in the fall of 2021, encourages governments to replace one-size-fits-all policies with “strategies that target certain underlying motivations that are common among certain age groups.” 

Before Covid, the World Health Organization (WHO) understood this as well. In its 2019 recommendations for mitigating a global influenza pandemic, the WHO specified that “the recommended behavior must be doable and be adapted to people’s lifestyle; otherwise, it will not be widely adopted.” In other words: if you want people to comply, create the conditions for compliance; don’t ask the same from a teenager as from a resident in a long-term care facility; and don’t ask society to behave the same way in 2022 as 2020.

On the cusp of the pandemic’s two-year mark, we are seeing compliance become more nuanced, more dependent on each person’s assessment and tolerance of risk. We no longer split up into the gold-star compliers who #stayhomestaysafe and the noisy defiers in public protests, waving their placards in the air. 

As we demarcate our own comfort zones, we could all use an extra dose of compassion for those who make different calibrations. Whichever strategy claims our allegiance—persisting with strict compliance or loosening the reins—it pays to remember that people on the other side want the pandemic to end as much as we do: they simply disagree on how it will happen.

Understanding people with a different world view is a big ask. But at this juncture in the Covid wars, it may be the balm we most urgently need. 

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Gabrielle Bauer

    Gabrielle Bauer is a Toronto health and medical writer who has won six national awards for her magazine journalism. She has written three books: Tokyo, My Everest, co-winner of the Canada-Japan Book Prize, Waltzing The Tango, finalist in the Edna Staebler creative nonfiction award, and most recently, the pandemic book BLINDSIGHT IS 2020, published by the Brownstone Institute in 2023

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