Long queues of vehicles stuck on serpentine hilly roads. Hundreds of tourists gathered at quaint marketplaces at the centre of hill towns. Devotees thronging the ghats of the Ganga in Haridwar.
Images capturing these events over the past few weeks, associated with what many are calling “revenge tourism”, have set off alarm bells. The government has repeatedly cautioned against flouting social-distancing guidelines, with fears of a possible third wave looming. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also appealed to holiday-makers to wear masks and avoid crowding.
But why is it that some people do not obey COVID-19 guidelines and are confident contrarians? Experts say there are psychological factors behind such behaviour.
Who are the rule-breakers?
There are three kinds of rule-breakers, psychologist Proffesor Fay Short tells the BBC. There are people who don’t understand the Covid-19 rules; people who don’t think these rules are important; and those trying to exert control.
The first group, the Bangor University psychologist explains, represents those who don’t know what the rules are. In a dynamic pandemic situation, it could be a person or a group confused due to separate lockdown and unlock orders over a period of time. For India, this challenge could get magnified due to the size of the country and its area-specific restrictions.
Then there are those, Prof Short tells the BBC, who think that rules are not important. “If you don’t have a personal experience of something, you minimise its importance,” she says.
This group could be living in an illusionary safety bubble and thinking “nothing would happen to me because my family is safe”. For this group, the disease “seems distant and something that happens to somebody else”, according to Short.
Clinical psychologist Dougal Sutherland writes in The Conversation that a reward at the end of an action is a good motivator. If the action, in this case, is sticking to COVID-19 guidelines, then not getting sick is the reward. But then, there’s a catch in the present context.
"Not getting sick is a reward, but it may not be perceived as such for much longer as most of us weren’t sick in the first place," Sutherland writes.
And this is where the optimism bias ("it won’t happen to me") creeps in. It "may become stronger than our anxiety as time passes and the perceived threat reduces," he explains.
According to Short, the third group of rule-breakers are those trying to exercise and regain control in a “scary world” that is unfamiliar and uncertain.
Why do people break the rules?
Sutherland writes in The Conversation that “fear is one of the central responses” during a pandemic. But as time passes, the fear could dissipate and “people’s resolution may begin to fray”.
The idea of group behaviour is also relevant in the present context. In times of crisis and uncertainty, it is not unusual for a person to look at what others are doing to decide his/her course of action.
Remarks by tourists that “we feel like we have come out of jail after two years” and that “we are not afraid of Covid”, as reported by news agency ANI recently, bolster the arguments above.
The third factor at play could be a rebellion for behavioural freedom in the face of curbs. “In 1966, the American psychologist Jack W. Brehm published a classic theory positing that people believe they have specific behavioural freedoms and when these freedoms are threatened or eliminated, they become motivated to reassert them. In other words, when somebody tells you to do something, you do the opposite,” says an article in the Scientific American.
Neuroscientist and addiction psychiatrist Jud Brewer, who is the director of research and innovations at the Mindfulness Center of Brown University, discussed wiith the Forbes why some people were not following Covid-19 rules.
“Some people are trying to retain a feeling of control by ignoring or defying stay-at-home orders. Other people are oppositional in nature and routinely defy authority. Many more are in denial, especially if they aren’t in hardest-hit areas, aren’t in high-risk groups and/or don’t know anyone with the virus,” he says in the Forbes article.
He adds anxiety “definitely” affects a person’s “ability to think clearly, make decisions or solve problems”. “The influx of uncertainty could be contributing to a denial of reality or factual information,” he says.
Explaining why social distancing could be tough to maintain, Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, tells the Reuters news agency that humans are “truly social animals” and that our “bodies and brains are designed for connection and the pandemic in many ways goes against our instincts to connect”.
The Indian experience in the recent days could be a combination “of apathy and a certain fatalistic attitude”, senior epidemiologist Lalit Kant tells news agency PTI.
“To my mind it is general apathy. It is not that they are against it, they understand that it is important, but they just don’t care,” says the former head of the Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases Division at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
In the PTI report, psychiatrist Nimish Desai argues that the “public in their conscious or unconscious minds could not see and correlate the restrictions on them….”
And veteran economist Arun Kumar says people’s faith in the government is crucial for mass behavioural change. “If people had more faith in the government, then they would follow its instructions. In India, unfortunately the faith in political parties is very low,” he says in the PTI report.
The debate continues
There has been a lot of discussion on why people flout COVID-10 rules. All theories might not be relevant in the Indian context of “revenge tourism”.
For instance, some experts suggest closely-knit cultures that exhibit collectivism (like those in Asia) fare better in following rules than those in the West (the US and the UK, for example), which exhibit individualism, Van Bavel tells Reuters.
And then there is of course the question of livelihood. In a country like India, a large number of people do not have the privilege to work from home. “…we found that fear of financial loss caused by virus containment strategies—rather than health risks—was often a stronger motivator for abiding by or ignoring government rules,” according to the Scientific American piece cited above.
“To help mitigate financial strains, a key concern of publics around the world, policymakers can do more to support state-run welfare systems and encourage private solidarity,” it adds.
In India, the government has stressed balancing lives and livelihood and announced schemes for different sections battling the pandemic. But that’s the subject of a separate discussion.