Grounds for compliance during a pandemic

One man’s risk could be another person’s danger. At no other time is this truism clearer than today, as we respond to the complexities of the coronavirus pandemic.

Responsibility demands that all of us consciously weigh the effects of our actions not only upon ourselves or our immediate families, but on the countless anonymous others we may come into contact with. This applies to everyone regardless of status in life, but, in particular, it applies to those who make decisions in our name—our highest elected officials.

Such is the scale of Sen. Koko Pimentel’s accountability after he chose to ignore his own symptoms (and the high probability of his being an infected person) by going out to shop for necessities and personally bring his pregnant wife to the hospital. As his social media critics have correctly pointed out, he was being thoughtless and irresponsible. When he tried to minimize the import of his actions and offer excuses, instead of immediately apologizing, he was, in addition, being arrogant.

This leads us to the principal theme of this column—the different grounds for compliance with the advisories, directives, and measures meant to control and slow the spread of this highly infectious disease. A few commentaries have come out comparing the efficacy of draconian responses implemented by authoritarian political systems versus those adopted by countries that are more respectful of liberal traditions.

The question I tackle here is: What makes people comply with emergency measures aimed at stemming the spread of a highly infectious disease like COVID-19? Drawing partly from the work of the American sociologist Amitai Etzioni, I propose three key reasons: 1. Fear of punishment for noncompliance; 2. Informed and value-driven understanding of the need for compliance; and 3. Trust in the integrity and capability of the issuing authority. These are obviously not mutually exclusive. In the real world, people will have mixed reasons, though they may be partial to one or the other. I offer them here for their possible analytical value.

There would be three forms of compliance then. “Coerced compliance” is rooted primarily in the use of force and fear of sanctions. On the other hand, “rational compliance” is based on information and shared values. Lastly, for want of a better term, what I designate as “trusting compliance” refers to compliance based on the sheer belief in the issuing authority.

Each of these will have their own pluses and minuses. Coerced compliance may work in the short term, but it is also likely to breed distrust in the long run. People will sooner or later find ways to subvert or avoid the rules.

Rational compliance, which relies mainly on the availability of credible information and the affirmation of common values, is perhaps the most stable. Information gives the justification for strict compliance with restrictions and advisories. However, reliable information may not be evenly available, especially in a divided and unequal society. Moreover, in the face of confusion and panic (when reliable information is not available), it may not be easy to rally people behind values like solidarity, compassion, and generosity.

Trusting compliance, which relies almost exclusively on the people’s implicit belief in the ability of the issuing authority to take care of the whole community or nation, might be found in fairly simple, relatively isolated, and traditional societies. Here, the word and assurance of the leader would often be enough to secure collective compliance. But there are hardly any such societies left in today’s globalized world. Authority can no longer solely rest on tacit trust in governments. The latter must ultimately obtain validation from science and fact-based information, and be able to tap shared values, if it is to secure compliance and cooperation from the population.

When the coronavirus was not yet a threat to Filipinos, I remember calling on our government to let the scientists and experts speak so the public may understand the threat that is killing thousands of people elsewhere. Instead, in an obvious attempt to leverage his high trust ratings, President Duterte was repeatedly put on center stage to brief the nation. It was a disaster. He clearly did not know what he was talking about, and, worse, he mocked the importance of understanding the nature of the public health crisis that loomed before us.

In the coming weeks or months, the public health system may demand tighter restrictions on everyday life to ensure the effective containment of the disease, even as government will be scrambling to find much-needed equipment and personnel to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed. In time, business may demand a relaxation of containment measures to allow the economy to breathe. Schools will want to know how long they will remain closed, and what to do to resume the learning process. The legal community will be assessing the continued need for restrictions on mobility and civil liberties against constitutional standards. And so on and so forth.

The crisis of modernity is that it offers no formula for reconciling these divergent demands during a crisis. Every move to solve a present danger brings its own risks. With every decision taken, there will be beneficiaries, but also adversely affected parties. In these uncertain times, we will increasingly need to turn to science to enlighten us, and to the wellsprings of our faith to summon the best in us.