After a long day in Colombo, I take an Uber home at 8.30 in the evening. A policeman stops the car at a checkpoint in front of the public library to check the license and sobriety of the driver. Approaching the driver’s window, he pulls his face mask down and leans in to talk to the driver, and the driver opens the shutter and reciprocates. The two men, though geared up for safety, are now up-close, freely spraying breath and possibly droplets – a known cause of COVID-19 transmission.
When I asked, the driver tells me it’s easier to talk with the mask down, and I remind him that he’s even more likely to spray viruses in or out when speaking. This incident is indicative of some peoples’ approach to hygiene and social distancing.
Yes, Sri Lanka has done well so far and stands out as one of the countries keeping Covid-19 successfully at bay. Decisive action from the government, a decent public health system, and perhaps even a majority of law-abiding citizens are at the heart of the success.
But, the crisis is far from over, and the economy and people have only started to recommence their lives. Government health officials have called for new behaviour and issued guidelines, and many seem to recognize the need for compliance. However, all is not perfect, posing threats of a reemergence of the pandemic – especially as the economy and country continue to open.
In the past few days, I’ve seen some policemen, who really should set an example, pulling down masks even when in a crowd. At several malls in Colombo and cramped air-conditioned small shops, vendors had their masks on their necks rather than covering mouths and noses. A chef could be spotted at a restaurant taking a break from his mask to expose the dish he was cooking. On the streets, you could easily spot elderly men, who are the most at risk, huddling in crowds without care. Many handwashing and sanitizer stations at supermarkets and stores are increasingly ignored.
This is in stark contrast to other countries who’ve also successfully dealt with Covid-19 so far like Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The people and businesses are more disciplined in such countries even without a pandemic – owing in equal parts to cultures that foster respect for others, compliance with the law, and lessons from SARs and past epidemics.
Sri Lankans can’t afford to let up. As citizens, we need to understand what’s at stake – our wellbeing, that of our beloved, and the entire community. Sooner or later, in this socially and economically interdependent and demanding world, we will have to open up. And if we don’t, growing poverty and starvation are likely, especially for people who are struggling to make ends meet. The more aware and disciplined we are, the safer we will be, and the faster we can progress.
Our change needs to start with awareness of our preferences, tendencies, and habits – whether they stem from a need for convenience or social compliance. It’s not easy to work or talk wearing a face mask, and I feel for the police, cleaners, and other workers who have to do so in heat, humidity, dust and rain.
Adding to the complexity is our existing habits. For example, we’ve probably been wiping sweat off our faces with our hands while working in the sun, and we touch our face or bite fingernails when nervous. We resort to these actions which comfort us without even realizing we are doing so, especially when distracted by important work, people or difficult conditions.
The first time I wore a face mask in Colombo was early in March, and I found myself self-conscious of being the odd one out. The majority was not into masks then, the strange looks I got seemed judgmental, and I felt relief whenever I saw the odd person wearing one. Being social animals, we humans struggle to behave differently and we’re automatically likely to comply without paying attention or thinking.
We need to be aware of our habits and tendencies that favour convenience or compliance at the expense of safety. Once aware, we have a chance to change the way we act. We need to think and talk about healthier norms, accept them either by lessening discomfort or finding new ways to deal with it.
While we know the need to socially distance, in many social circles, hugging is a norm when you meet someone, but not a great choice for distancing. When I bumped into a close friend the other day, she was taken aback because I bowed Ayubowan instead of the usual hug. When meeting someone we have a long, happy, or caring history with, we feel at ease and safe intrinsically. And the new knowledge that there’s a risk of failing to social distance takes a back seat. Similarly, we will struggle to encounter habitual programmed ways of behaving at offices, buses, places of worship, playgrounds or elsewhere.
We must think deeply and honestly about our habits, situations, times and places. Talking about them and acknowledging them with friends, families, and peers will give us a safe space to absorb healthier and safer ways. We can also find ways to make adoption easier. For example, for the chef working in the heat of the kitchen, a break away from cooking for a few minutes and a fresh mask would make healthier behaviour much easier – and an open conversation of restaurant staff and management may have helped in finding such a solution.
We must accept the new norms because they give us positive benefits – safety, resumption of lives, and economic progress for us, families and the community. We must also accept the new norms because failure will endanger all of the above.
Once we are aware of habits and tendencies and situations where they kick in, then we can replace them with the new healthier norms. In the process of getting used to them, awareness gives also gives us room to interrupt. When we or others around us fail, we can interrupt with empathy and kindness selling us and them in on the positives instead of scalding or blaming.
Remember: we can only be truly safe if all of us are.
Kumbalathara is a communications expert who has worked with local and international organisations. The views herein are his own. and not of any organization he is or has been affiliated to. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org