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This week I look at how the bystander effect and social pressure is affecting the public’s reaction to Coronavirus.

I have been onsite with a client in the South of England for the last two days and conversations have all been about coronavirus, what is happening, the day-by-day increase in numbers and the speculation on how bad it might get. Listening to people’s views, both in face-to-face conversation, through social media and observing people on the streets I have been intrigued by the public’s reaction, so I thought I would share some thoughts with you.

In terms of public conversation and meeting new people, after introductions, the chat turns very quickly to the coronavirus. What are your thoughts, what are the latest numbers and what are you doing about it individually? I was wondering if we were chatting about it because it was a threat to all of us or whether it was just the topic of the moment. Great national events, such as the death of Lady Diana, had the same effect on national conversation and after pleasantries, all conversations would very quickly turn to thoughts on her death and the public’s reaction at the time. As COVID-19 is only meant to kill those with underlining health problems, and if you get it, on the whole, it will be mild, my reading of people’s reaction is that there is no panic, people are thinking they might do something personally to help protect themselves, but it is more a mutual topic of conversation than a deadly threat. In my opinion, people are talking about it because it is the topic of the moment rather than it being a grave threat, so they are definitely ‘keeping calm and carrying on’.

In the media and on social media, it is a mad frenzy. Every news channel leads with the story, hypes up the number of deaths and the massive impact it is having on people lives, especially in places like Italy and Japan where they have closed schools and universities. In social media publications, people want to talk about coronavirus as a hot topic and come at it through their own lens; coronavirus and its effect on international finance, on IT, even on the possibility of cyber-attacks linked to the virus. All consultants and vendors of business continuity/crisis management products and services are all desperate to try and place themselves as the authoritative voice on coronavirus. They pump out vast numbers of light, fluffy articles on the virus, which apart from a select few, just add to the noise rather than providing useful and helpful information. I think I have seen more blogs and articles from those who only write periodically than I have for a long time! Most people want to inform you and give a surreptitious offer of help. Very few have come out with a business proposition of what they are offering to help you plan. Perhaps the muteness is due to not being seen as profiteering and trying to take advantage of the death of others.

Coming back on the train this afternoon I thought I would take the underground to see if the pictures on the internet were true; people wearing plastic bags, Perspex boxes or gas masks on their head to travel to work on the tube. My journey was only one stop, and it was 3 pm so not very busy, but I only saw three people with face masks and three trying rather half-heartedly to cover their face with scarfs. I have also noticed after a few days on site that people haven’t been social distancing themselves and continued shaking hands with visitors as they normally would. In these instances, I wondered if ‘bystander effect’ was in place. This is where people, if surrounded by strangers, are less likely to go to the aid of someone in need, than if they are on their own. The second part of this effect resonated with me, that when faced by someone in need people feel they have to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways. So perhaps there is a tipping point as to when everyone feels that it is socially acceptable not to shake someone’s hand, keep your distance or to wear a mask in public, but for me and most of the people on the London underground, this point has not yet come.

I wrote this bulletin a while ago on Hurricane Dorian and my point in the article was that after disasters, on the whole, the public behaves well. They don’t steal from their neighbours, often make great sacrifices to help each other, don’t panic and try to survive and then recover as best they can. In regard to coronavirus, I think people are getting on with their daily lives, keeping calm and carrying on, and are not yet fully following government advice on social distancing and hand washing. I think this is due to social pressure and bystander effect, as everyone else is doing the same. As the situation is likely to get worse, I think the social pressure will then be on people to conform and take precaution, rather than only a few doing so which we are seeing at the moment. They will keep calm and carry on, but socially will behave differently.

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