Social Distancing From The Right Information

Article Written by Alfonso Bello
Illustration by Daniesha Danao
Posted 8 March 2022

At this point, it has been more than two years since the world has been afflicted by the pandemic. In those two years, countless lives were taken and countless more were destroyed. Through it all, we have gone from being clueless and careless about this pandemic to being adaptive and careful about it. I still remember patient zero in the Philippines and how my classmates and I joked that it would be a small event; a contained infection that would cancel classes for only a few weeks, but, in hindsight, COVID-19 is far more than a few practical jokes and class suspensions. This was something that would change many aspects of our lives for years to come and they were all done through protocol. 

Initially, not many knew of the dangers of this virus. During the onset of the quarantine, people were largely uninformed due to the novelty of it, I guiltily admit that I found those practicing safety among other people to be “O.A.” or over acting. I would see some people put on double masks, fancy face shields, and bring with them large alcohol spray bottles. In my mind, this situation was blown out of proportion. However, a quick peek outside will garner you the same behaviors I saw about two years ago. Many people are wearing durable masks and bringing their own alcohol sprays of varying sizes. It seems that what was formerly something that was “O.A.” to me is now the new normal. 

Unfortunately, even after two years of constant adaptation to policy and protocol, information and proper protocol regarding the virus and prevention seems to fall short. Even after constant reminders, people are still ignorant of quarantine practices, indicating this is no longer just an information dissemination problem, it now has to do with information discernment. Information in the pandemic has now become a choice to follow rather than something that you must follow. 

To put it into perspective, look at the various pandemic trends. Our current situation involves a cyclical trend of contraction and relaxation. Back in April 2021, there was a relaxation of protocols as cases lowered to the low hundreds. What came after was nothing short of shock as cases skyrocketed back into the thousands and many areas were under strict lockdown once more. This was the same case during the “Ber” months where protocols were once again relaxed and later contracted due to the emergence of the Omicron variant. These actions were later eased to account for the holidays and COVID-19 cases reached an all-time high in early January 2022. This trend seemed to keep happening despite the open availability of information. [1]

So, why does this keep happening?

In 2019, when the Department of Health declared a measles outbreak, people went on with their lives. There were guidelines released for the proper containment and prevention of measles but no one had to wear masks and people were relatively unabashed by it. [2] While this outbreak was not as substantial as COVID-19, it parallels the behaviors people have towards health. There was no lockdown during the measles outbreak which meant people were relaxed about it. This might be the same mindset when it comes to COVID-19. After being in quarantine for long periods of time, being relaxed again might make individuals misinterpret or entirely ignore the situation much like the measles outbreak. In a sense, the voice of excitement and relief towards the relaxation of protocols is louder than the voice of reason. 

Another issue has to do with peer pressure. You might see other people around improperly practicing or lacking proper protocol and follow them because many others are doing it and proper protocol is tiresome or unknown to you. They might ask you to take off your mask out of a feeling of trust when COVID could be around the corner. [3] So, instead of following the initial protocol, you are pressured to follow these people which has become more common due to other excuses like vaccination. 

There is an ongoing belief that being vaccinated prevents you from being infected with COVID-19. Vaccination safely mimics the virus, causing your body to produce antibodies against the actual virus. Though they make you less susceptible to the virus, these antibodies do not make you immune. I repeat, they do not make you immune. [4] As I said, people will say otherwise, making it a reason to break protocol; treating vaccination like a privilege, waving their vaccination cards as a means to get what they want. During the early “Ber” months, a significant amount of people were already vaccinated but despite these rates, cases soared up to the tens of thousands. The government eased protocol to spur economic activity but failed again. [5] Sure, it’s embarrassing that all our attempts to ease the situation has resulted in failure after failure but it’s just as embarrassing that people have the gall to improperly handle the situation personally with excuses such as these yet be aware of the frontliners who work with all their blood, sweat, and tears for them. In this manner, it is as much the people’s fault as the government’s fault. 

The main suspect to all of this is none other than misinformation. The World Health Organization dubs this phenomenon as an “infodemic” which states that there is too much information circulating for people to consume. What follows is a moshpit where people can no longer discern what is right or wrong about the current situation. The result? Ignorance. [6] 

Unfortunately, medical misinformation has always been plentiful, this is caused by vast misinformation networks on Facebook and other social media platforms that have existed even before the pandemic. People mindlessly scroll through these sites, believing posts without verification just because many others believed it. [7] It’s another case of peer pressure and this sort of information can spread faster than any virus. 

All of these are some of the cases for why the virus still runs rampant in the country. Nonetheless, there is a chance for redemption.

My mother, a nurse, explained to me in simple terms how the virus worked and why we needed to follow protocol. It dawned on me that the way the virus was explained on the news or on any site was different from my own experience. I had frequently corrected neighbors who wore masks improperly or didn’t social distance correctly. They were trying to follow protocol but did not know it in detail. This is why I believe the goal of information dissemination should not just be to inform but also to make it understandable. The average person may not understand that a virus as deadly as this is life-threatening. Fearmongering among people may not be the answer but an emphasis on how the dangers are explained should be given. Part of it might come from explaining how to distance properly and what happens if you don’t. The narrative of how COVID-19 was explained seemed to have fallen short. If we must solely rely on individual adherence then we must ensure that the way it is explained is understood. [8]

Supplement to understanding is acting on it. Protocols were made for following so it should no longer be a question of if we should enforce it, it should be a question of how we can enforce it effectively. We must constantly remain vigilant to the dangers of the virus. They were made to prevent its spread, for the safety and greater good of the individual and the people around them. 

Along with these, it is just as important to empower the information that we hold. This speaks directly against peer pressure. If you know that what you are doing is right, then stick to it and spread the word about the proper handling of protocols. There is no shame in being the person who still wears a mask among friends, in being the person who reminds people to distance or wear their masks, and in being the person who explicitly social distances. In fact, I would go as far as to say that you are doing a service to them. Keep doing it, in the process, you are combating misinformation, personally. As I mentioned at the start, become O.A.

It all boils down to the statement that information is a powerful tool but it isn’t being utilized or empowered enough in the same way it is being mishandled or constantly misinterpreted. The approach that we have on the virus currently attempts to empower information on societal levels but does not do so on personal levels. People are selfish because selflessness isn’t promoted enough in the pandemic, we are not emphasizing the promotion of the abidance to protocols as a personal duty like we should be doing. That issue stems from the reach and portraying of information down to the understanding of the person and we must ensure that everyone not only knows what it means but also practice it. 

Although we are constantly overwhelmed by this whole situation, we must remember that prevention of COVID-19 is a societal effort but in order for a society to function, its individuals must first come together with their own effort. One of these efforts? Embracing the right information and following through with them. If we can do that, then the solutions are limitless.

References

  1. Department of Health [DOH]. COVID-19 Tracker [Internet]. DOH; 2022 [cited 2022 Mar 2]. Available from: https://doh.gov.ph/covid19tracker
  2. World Health Organization [WHO]. Questions and answers on the measles outbreak in the Philippines [Internet]. WHO; February 2019 [cited 2022 Mar 2]. Available from: https://www.who.int/philippines/news/feature-stories/detail/questions-and-answers-on-the-measles-outbreak-in-the-philippines
  3. Jennings R. VOA. How Philippines Got Runaway COVID-19 Caseload, an Outlier in Asia [Internet]. 2020 Aug 7 [cited 2022 Mar 2];COVID-19 Pandemic. Available from: https://www.voanews.com/a/covid-19-pandemic_how-philippines-got-runaway-covid-19-caseload-outlier-asia/6194096.html
  4. Department of Health [DOH]. FAQs: Vaccines [Internet]. DOH; 2022 [cited 2022 Mar 2]. Available from: https://doh.gov.ph/faqs/vaccines
  5. Al Jazeera. Philippine eases lockdown amid record COVID-19 infections [Internet]. 2021 Aug 21 [cited 2022 Mar 2];News. Available from: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/21/philippines-eases-lockdown-amid-record-covid-19-infections
  6. World Health Organization [WHO]. Infodemic [Internet]. WHO; 2020 [cited 2022 Mar 2]. Available from: https://www.who.int/health-topics/infodemic
  7. Dang HL. Social Media, Fake News, and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Sketching the Case of Southeast Asia. ASEAS [Internet]. 2021 Jun 28 [cited 2022 Mar 2];14(1):37-58. Available from: https://aseas.univie.ac.at/index.php/aseas/article/view/3930
  8. Hapal K. The Philippines’ COVID-19 Response: Securitising the Pandemic and Disciplining the Pasaway. GIGA [Internet]. 2021 Mar 18 [cited 2022 Mar 2];40(2):224-244. https://doi.org/10.1177/1868103421994261

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