Why people disregard COVID-19 health warnings

Globally, case numbers and the death toll from COVID-19 are climbing exponentially. With 5 million cases and 330,000 deaths to date, many of us are concerned about the risk to ourselves, our families, and our communities if the coronavirus takes hold in Australia. The majority of Australians are willing to sacrifice individual freedoms to prevent the spread. In fact, doctors are concerned that some people might even be delaying life-saving medical tests due to fears of contracting the virus.

Yet, some people appear unperturbed or even suspicious about the motives behind the social restrictions imposed by health professionals and governments. We are seeing regular reports of crowded beaches and public transport. Sports stars, politicians, and even police and health officials have been caught flouting the rules.

What would motivate people to disregard health advice warnings designed to protect them? And what can be done about it?

The "sceptics": Some people see conspiracies everywhere. There have been reports of celebrity chef Pete Evans spruiking bizarre theories about code words that are inserted into stories about coronavirus. Paranoia and persecutory delusions can be symptoms of mental illness, but for some people seeing the world through a conspiratorial lens is a lifestyle choice. For these people, laws and enforcement may be the only pathway to compliance.

The "specials": Others may defy externally imposed rules simply because they do not believe that they apply to them. These people are rule-breakers and have little regard for social norms. They prize their own autonomy above the greater good. Law enforcement is likely to be the only effective approach for these folks too.

The "unawares": Other people may be genuinely unaware of the actual risks to themselves and their loved ones. They might perceive themselves to be low risk because they are young and healthy. It is easy to ignore longer-term hazards that cannot be seen, particularly in the face of short-term rewards. These people need a different approach altogether.

Health messages delivered from authoritative sources that people admire and respect can be persuasive - health professionals, community leaders, sportspeople, musicians, elders, or religious leaders. Some will respond to statistics, whereas others will need graphic imagery and anecdotes from the frontlines to be swayed. Clear, consistent, and emotive messaging helps.

The "worriers": Then there are people who may deny or avoid the threat due to fear. Some forms of avoidance can be adaptive, such as choosing to focus on what can be controlled in the present and limiting exposure to COVID-related news. Other forms of avoidance are less helpful - such as acting as if there is no threat during this pandemic. Help is available for people who are struggling to cope.

It is important to find a balance between acknowledging the threat while continuing to safely forge a meaningful and full-filling life in the present. This is the challenge for all of us at this time in history.

Lifeline: 13 11 14. Beyondblue Coronavirus mental wellbeing support service: 1800 512 348.

Professor Peter McEvoy, School of Psychology at Curtin University.

This story Why people disregard COVID-19 health warnings first appeared on The Canberra Times.