Helping people do the right thing in times of pandemic

Helping people do the right thing in times of pandemic

People will be more likely to follow physical distancing rules in coming months if they appreciate the impact of their actions on a human level, experts say.

RMIT University ethics expert, Associate Professor Eva Tsahuridu, says Australians had so far responded well to physical distancing orders in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

But sustaining high levels of compliance as time drags on could be increasingly difficult, she warns, especially among younger people less motivated by fear for their own health.

“If you want to keep convincing people that physical distancing is the right thing to do – the ethical behaviour we want to comply with - messaging needs to target both our hearts and our minds,” she says. 

Tsahuridu says public health information could either improve or impede our ability to see coronavirus as an ethical issue, and whether we decide to do what is right or not. 

“While graphs and percentage figures are useful in explaining the importance of physical distancing to slow the spread and protect the most vulnerable in our community, it will miss the mark with many people,” she says. 

“The motto of ‘flattening the curve’ does little to emphasise the potential human suffering at stake. Neither does talking of people as ‘cases’.” 

Tsahuridu suggests a more personal, story-driven approach may be needed in the months ahead.

“Allowing us to 'see' the people our actions endanger or even to 'interact’ with them via interviews will have much more impact on our behaviour,” she says. 

These types of campaigns could be useful in helping lower-risk people understand that their behaviour - if they decide to disregard physical distancing orders - could lead to hundreds of infections and the deaths of people who have names, faces and loved ones that will miss them dearly. 

A northern Italian local newspaper's obituary section, in which around 90% of those listed died from coronavirus, shows the human impact of this pandemic. A northern Italian local newspaper's obituary section, in which around 90% of those listed died from coronavirus, shows the human impact of this pandemic.

Intense times call for morally-intense messaging

Well targeted information that resonates personally with the audience can increase the 'moral intensity' of an issue in our mind, Tsahuridu says.

Research has long shown that increased moral intensity is more likely to awaken our ethical thinking. 

“We are more likely to consider the ethical side of an issue - such as flouting physical distancing rules and putting others at risk of infection - if we can visualise in our mind the people that we risk harming,” she said. 

A large number of statistics and graphs, along with characterisations of the virus as being mainly carried by foreigners or even the US president’s insistence of it being the ‘Chinese virus’ can do the exact opposite – driving unethical action by making victims seem very far away.

Tsahuridu warns that public health campaigns aiming for moral intensity do need to be done with caution, as the Heart Foundation found last year during its controversial Heartless Words campaign.

While attempting to target health complacency and save lives, the Heartless Words campaign was widely criticised, and eventually pulled, for seemingly suggesting that people who suffer from heart disease don’t care about their loved ones.

An AIDS public health campaign in the 1980s also aimed for moral intensity by showing the faces of potential victims, which was also highly controversial at the time.

Tsahuridu says while it's a difficult balance to get right, the public health messaging and our own framing of the issue should always remember the people behind the numbers.

“The COVID-19 catastrophe is bringing out the best and worst in people, but we can all contribute to more ethical behaviour if we keep in mind how this is an ethical health issue involving real people who love and are loved by others,” she says. 

Associate Professor Eva Tsahuridu is an expert in personal and organisational ethics in the School of Accounting.


Story: Michael Quin

08 April 2020


08 April 2020


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