You are responsible for others’ health

You’re probably not in the risk group. But you’ll have to agree that not threatening the lives of your colleague’s elderly relatives is, all things considered, a good thing. It will, however, require more deliberate effort than under normal circumstances. That’s why it is vital that everyone involved follows UM’s Smart Start-up protocol when buildings start to reopen next week.

“You have a crucial role in this,” says Professor emeritus of Applied Psychology Gerjo Kok, “that is what people need to realise.” UM will gradually, cautiously reopen its buildings in the next weeks and months – with strict rules to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The wording is important: “You’re not primarily doing it to stay healthy, you’re probably not at great risk – you’re doing it for the greater good.”

Kok was impressed by the level of preparation. “The schools’ and services’ directors had been meeting twice a week for some time and they’re taking it very seriously. They’ve thought about many details and are approaching the restart very cautiously.” Kok and Rik Crutzen, Professor of Behaviour Change & Technology, are experts on planned behavioural change. They advised UM on how to introduce new, safe behaviours.

Social distancing

It’s about other people’s health

Studying at 1,5 meters distance

“The technical side of it is taken care of very well but individual behaviour will be crucial,” says Crutzen. You might have the virus asymptomatically without knowing; you might not see the harm in shaking the hand of your colleague who’s doing triathlons on the weekend. But you might not know that she’s taking care of an elderly relative. “That’s the problem: you don’t see it – but you have to be aware of it.”

“It’s a matter of framing,” says Kok, “if you ask people if they’re scared of contracting the virus, they’ll most likely say no. But if you ask them if they want to infect someone else, they’ll definitely say no.” It comes down to people making sacrifices – like keeping 1,5 metres distance – without any immediate benefit. “It’s like taking steps to protect the environment or women giving up smoking during pregnancy.”

“Behavioural change is possible – of course it is,” says Kok, adding “but it takes time… a lot of time.” He remembers his professors smoking during lectures. Reprimanding them would have been outrageous. It took 50 years but it no longer constitutes acceptable behaviour. “It’s a moving target,” warns Crutzen, “as new medical knowledge about the virus emerges and government measures change, we might have to adapt the behavioural recommendations.”

Good intentions alone won’t suffice

UM is making an effort to clearly communicate realistic rules and also explain why they are necessary. “People need to understand they’re primarily a danger to others,” says Kok and adds that, even though it’s good advice not to touch your face, “there’s no point telling people because you can’t expect them to control that. So frequent handwashing is a safer bet. The rules are few and clear – it’s a pragmatic approach.”

The omnipresence of COVID-19 in the media might be helpful. “Most people will realise how serious this is and so they’ll be willing to do whatever it takes,” says Crutzen, “but even with the best of intentions, you have to realise that it’s not people’s first priority – they come here to work.” UM has to create an environment that makes it easy to follow the rules, from reminders, hand sanitiser or arrows on the floor to direct people.

Encourage and be there for each other

1,5 meters distance

But, as anyone with a nigh unused pair of running shoes will testify, it is difficult to create new habits. “People need to remind and encourage each other,” explains Kok. “If everyone else sticks to the rules, it is much easier to follow them yourself. So your role might just be to help create a culture in which colleagues who have contact with vulnerable people don’t feel foolish for keeping a distance of 1.5 metres.”

On top of mutual support, there will also be some kind of monitoring. “I work in Randwyck and we often cross the hospital. Before we started working from home, there was a security guard asking you if you need to actually be there or if you’re just walking through because it’s convenient,” says Crutzen, “if people are trained to do it in a nice way, there is no conflict and it helps you change your behaviour.”

It takes effort – but we can do it

Kok is realistic: “It takes time to get it right. We need feedback so we can understand the misunderstandings and practical problems, and then alter the message accordingly.” Results of the trial in TS 53 and UNS40/50 will determine whether a complete restart in September is feasible.

Crutzen summarises: “You have to understand why these measures are necessary. You have to help create a social environment where it is easy to do the right thing. And you have to be aware that it will be difficult to stick to it, that there will be relapses – so you have to keep paying attention and remind yourself every day, several times a day in fact, to turn those safe behaviours into a habit.”

The basic rules of UM’s Smart Start-up protocol (and also very sensible advice in general…):

  • Keep a distance of 1.5 metres (and even if your arm is longer than that, don’t shake hands)
  • If you or someone you’ve been in contact with have flu-like symptoms, stay at home
  • Wash your hands regularly (at least six times a day)
  • Sneeze or cough into your elbow
  • After blowing your nose, immediately discard the tissue and wash your hands
  • Wear facemasks if your work necessitates physical proximity
  • Remind each other to follow the rules

Text: Florian Raith

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