Personal Insights: 'Staying safe' in the next stage of Covid-19 crisis will be our greatest challenge

Reader, Máiréad Ni Chiarba, senses an air of complacency among her friends around the Covid-19 restrictions and that's why she believes society is facing its greatest challenge yet.

Personal Insights: 'Staying safe' in the next stage of Covid-19 crisis will be our greatest challenge

Never has the phrase ‘Stay safe’ been so commonly used. At the end of emails, zoom meetings, casual conversations from a distance. Every parting message generally ends with a dictate to be safe, to mind yourself and your health in the midst of an unsafe time.

Prior to this the emphasis on being safe was not always so clearly verbalized. We may have kissed our partner or children goodbye as we headed out the door in the morning, or wished a family member well as they embarked on a bus or train journey. Our thoughts would not always have strayed towards the possibility that something could go wrong.

But now things are different. Our perspective has been dramatically changed by external influences. We are looking at each encounter and each goodbye through a different lens. The paradigm has shifted.

There is now a whole different level of safety to be considered. We not only verbalise the words now, we genuinely mean it as well. It has gone from being a passing comment or a gap filler to a sincerely intended wish.

To be safe and to stay safe requires a change in behavior. And behaviour is mostly learned. If we look at a young child who is acting aggressively by shouting at others in order to get what they want, we have to ask ourselves not why they are behaving like this but who did they learn it from ? The same principle applies to adults.

Changing our behavior is something we tend to shy away from unless we can see some direct benefit to our selves or our loved ones. Malcolm Knowles, a central figure in US adult education in the twentieth century believed that adult’s motivation to change was primarily influenced by self-interest ‘How does this benefit me – either physically, psychologically, financially or otherwise?’

We can see this when we look at how suddenly and dramatically our behaviour in society has changed in the space of a few short weeks, since the start of the Pandemic. This change in behaviour includes social distancing, donning protective clothing when shopping, avoiding walking too close to another person in case they breathe or cough on us and ending our limited physical and virtual communications with a “Stay Safe” message. Our senses are heightened, and our reflexes are running on adrenaline as we attempt to change, modify and alter our everyday way of being, in order to survive. There is a clear and tangible benefit to us.

But what happens when the risk is little less obvious, when the negative effects are happening to someone else who is somewhere else. What happens to our behaviours when we no longer really believe there is an immediate and significant risk to our life or our loved ones?

In recent Zoom conversations with friends who had not been directly impacted by COVID-19, I sensed an air of complacency and a more relaxed attitude to some of the enforced restrictions. None of these people had any direct experience of the illness and were somewhat startled when I spoke about my own experience of it to them.

Up to that point it was not real in their world. It was not happening to them.

This is the challenge we face as a society when trying to influence people to behave safely on an ongoing basis. It is hard to maintain it. The challenge increases as the perception of the threat is lessened, the risk is less obvious and the consequences too far removed to be real to a person.

Personal Insights: 'Staying safe' in the next stage of Covid-19 crisis will be our greatest challenge

That’s when the changes become ‘unstuck’ and people often revert back to the ‘the way things used to be’. As discussions wager on returning to workplaces and schools and the behaviours that will be required in relation to social distancing and hand hygiene we must reflect on what is the best way to influence these behaviors to be maintained for as long as is needed.

The stick approach is not always effective and policing of these changes impossible on an ongoing basis. In most situations, influencing behavioural change requires a great understanding of human nature, a developed sense of self-awareness and an immense level of patience, kindness, creativity and intelligence.

Above all a person must believe the required changes are in their best interest. We must look to our leaders and those in charge of this transitional stage to be cognizant of the safe behaviours that are required and the best means to influence those behaviours.

We do not want the experience of the factory manager who rules with an iron fist dictating what must be done only for it to fall apart when they are not on the factory floor to enforce it. We must create a culture of trust, transparency and equality so that these behavioural changes happen whether supervised or unsupervised.

We need our society to feel motivated enough to continue to behave safely in order to protect our own health. This is the greatest challenge we face, far greater than any others.

Personal Insights: 'Staying safe' in the next stage of Covid-19 crisis will be our greatest challenge

Máiréad's submission is part of a digital initiative on irishexaminer.com called Personal Insights.
As part of the Personal Insights initiative we are asking readers, creative writing groups and writing enthusiasts in general to share personal essays chronicling an experience which has impacted their lives and any learnings from that life experience they would like to share with a wider audience.
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The Irish Examiner reserves the right to edit submissions in line with those guidelines and before publication direct contact will be made with the person who has submitted the content.
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We look forward to reading your stories.

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