Give people more responsibility in tackling corona

When I started writing this piece, I was reading the news that the curfew (avondklok in Dutch) would be prolonged. Something I have trouble supporting. I am not the kind of person who wants to go on the streets to burn things or throw rocks through a window to show that this is not a good measure in my eyes. However, I am someone that’s going to write about it in this column. I have taken some time to figure out why it’s irking me as much as it does. Some students like the idea of the government taking action against the spread of the coronavirus. I, myself, miss the government taking a proactive stance against issues, like the coronavirus, in the domain of public health and human rights. An attitude that promotes prevention and strives to create a Sense of Agency in people.

Big responsability
Sense of Agency makes sure that “when we make voluntary actions we tend not to feel as though they simply happen to us, instead we feel as though we are in charge. The sense of agency refers to this feeling of being in the driving seat when it comes to our actions,” writes the English psychologist James Moore. This Sense of agency also plays a role in society at large, because it is central to the idea of responsibility for our actions.

In essence, being allowed more freedom brings a larger responsibility. That’s the message we have been receiving a lot. However, two real questions are: is there a responsibility to create a larger Sense of Agency when calling upon the responsibility of individuals in a crisis? And is it allowed to limit people’s freedom when you don't manage to give people that sense of responsibility?

Only healthcare when it goes wrong
For me, it’s not only about the feeling that the government has just decided where I can and can’t go at certain hours of the day. It’s more about the fact that the government is limiting rights. Rights I think never should be allowed to be limited, without exhausting other options and especially not as a way to try to make right previous wrongs.

It’s a process that has been going on for a long time right now. The damage control process. Instead of educating people and giving them a Sense of Agency, together with improving procedures to keep future healthcare trouble at bay, our mentalities and institutions are built to only work when things already go wrong.

It’s something seen on a larger scale in the healthcare sector. The idea is that you don’t go to a doctor for healthcare tips when you seem to be healthy. You go to a doctor when it’s too late. When your body is breaking down. If you go to a doctor and say you have trouble with something, but still manage daily life, the doctor is less likely to help you. While if a few years later you show up with a terminal disease, caused by the same trouble that you experienced earlier, suddenly your not-so-special situation becomes something that does need to be treated. If you look at prevention in the healthcare sector only around 3.1 per cent of the healthcare budget in the Netherlands in 2015 has gone to preventive measures according to the last calculations from Paul van Gils in the publication Het tijdschrift van Gezondheidswetenschappen (The Health Sciences Magazine). We currently live in a system where you get healthcare when it goes wrong. The measures that would protect your health are not subsidized, while measures that take care of you after anything goes wrong are subsidized.

Waiting for the virus
We do know that limiting freedom reduces a Sense of Agency. However, often, it is reasoned that it also works the other way around. That by giving freedom, people would immediately have a larger sense of agency. However, a Sense of Agency in itself is cultivated throughout time, the issues one encounters, and through the way problems that arise are dealt with. I think it might even be part of a culture.

In a larger sense, I think we could draw a parallel saying the same kind of reasoning is what happened at the start of the Corona situation. The world, our governments as well as our public health institutions, waited for the moment that this new virus in China would need to be addressed. They hoped it would be squelched by others before it reached their own shore. Hence, they wouldn’t need to take preventive measures. In a way, it’s a reduction of their Sense of Agency that brought this disaster forward.

Later on, when it became clear Corona was to stay, governments all over the world started taking away more responsibility of individuals, and also indirectly influenced the Sense of Agency of the individuals in the populations more. By introducing measures that would make sure people would not do things that might bring more trouble to themselves as well as their fellow citizens. However, by doing so, they reduced further the Sense of Agency already present in people.

Obligating mouth mask
An example of measures that reduce the Sense of Agency would be the non-medical face masks introduced as an obligatory prevention measure. The belief , widely spread in the Netherlands, and state of research at that moment, was that they did not reduce the risk of infection. Obliging people to take part in a measure that they perceived as most likely not reducing the risk of a disease did not seem like a measure that increases the Sense of Agency at people to me. Giving suggestions on how to take care of your own health, however, would be seen as measures that show that health is something you can influence and take care of. Most measures suggested, e.g. the social distancing, the reduction of handshaking, were focused on ‘new’ ideas, however that did not reinforce prior beliefs.

For example, information on how to keep healthy while living in a pandemic were sparse. Easy to understand suggestions for measures that could reduce the effect for a viral-like Sars Cov 2 we heard rarely. Examples of such suggestions could have been keeping to a varied diet, making sure your immune system is top-notch by getting enough vitamins (e.g. C and D) were quite sparsely shared by governmental institutions(1)(4). Another venue of giving people more control themselves would have been giving them suggestions on how to reduce the chances of catching it indoors. Suggestions on the access to fresh air, controlling the temperature at home and other measures that can reduce the chances of catching or having a severe progress of corona (2)(3), were scarce too, even though the scientific community had access to the data and prior research on these ‘normal’ preventive measures.

Limitation of human rights
To handle the fact that the number of infections was rising, the government decided to implement more and more measures. At some point, however, the question is in which manner they are helping the people they are responsible for instead of hindering the quality of life of the people they would seemingly protect as well as reducing their Sense of Agency. For me, that limit is reached when we get to the Human Rights that have been declared. I could probably follow in the footsteps of tons of scholars that looked at the Human Rights and other derivatives of these rights and explain why these rights are so important and never should be touched upon. However, to spare you from that, I won't.

Basically what I would like to emphasize is that you should not limit human rights to make people move in the direction you think they ought to go. You should first try to educate people and allow them to determine which situations are dangerous for themselves as individuals with a stake in their own health. There is a difference between guiding and taking over control. It’s the reduction of individual Sense of Agency while at the same time improving healthcare spending, that still doesn’t meet the world’s demand.

Literature I used for this blog:

1. Kumar R, Rathi H, Haq A, Wimalawansa SJ, Sharma A. Putative roles of vitamin D in modulating immune response and immunopathology associated with COVID-19. Virus Research. 2021 Jan 15;292:198235.

2. Science in 5 - Episode #9 - Air pollution & COVID-19 

3. Dabisch P, Schuit M, Herzog A, Beck K, Wood S, Krause M, et al. The influence of temperature, humidity, and simulated sunlight on the infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 in aerosols. Aerosol Science and Technology. 2021 Feb 1;55(2):142–53.

4. Simonson W. Vitamin C and coronavirus. Geriatric Nursing. 2020 May 1;41(3):331–2.


Tags: coronavirus