While the rest of the world is wrestling with virulent new strains of the coronavirus, rising case numbers, overrun hospitals, doctors and nurses developing PTSD symptoms, and issues with the vaccine rollout, New Zealand has been focused on having an “unstoppable summer”. All this changed on Sunday with the Northland case.

Dictionary.com’s definition of complacency is “a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation, condition, etc”.

If we were looking at a behavioural example of what complacency looks like when trying to explain this to an alien visitor, showing them what’s happened with app usage in New Zealand these past few weeks would slice through any communication barriers. This could be described as textbook complacency. Or is it more complex than that?

From the evidence of the number of check-ins using the Covid-19 tracer app and how difficult it can be to track down QR codes, it seems to me that not only is the New Zealand summer in danger of coming to a grinding handbrake halt, but we increase the risk that an almighty wreck might follow shortly afterwards. Increasing your rate of check-ins now a case has been found is all very well and likely to be helpful for future cases, but it really doesn’t contribute to cases that may have been in the community for the past few days, spreading invisibly.

In my new book, Steady: Keeping Calm in a World Gone Viral – A Guide to Better Mental Health Through and Beyond the Coronavirus Pandemic, I talk about the critical importance of structure in the Covid-19 response. This includes communicating about the Alert Level structure and how we need to behave to keep ourselves safe. However, something seems to be missing the mark meaning that use of the Covid-19 tracer app has fallen to low levels recently. Let me look at that more carefully here.

We humans are bad at dealing with invisible or abstract threats that happen over an extended period of time. Just look at how long it has taken for us to wake up to the threat of climate change, and how much longer it is taking for us to come up with some kind of coordinated effort to deal with it. We still haven’t managed that yet.

The good news is that the response we have come up with to the current pandemic so far has been largely excellent. The bad news is that we think it’s done. We act like the hard work has been banked and now we get to enjoy the treats: no further work required. The team of 5 million has done its job and we can now relax, and enjoy our “unstoppable summer”.

Not to be a killjoy, but make way “unstoppable summer”; winter is coming. What kind of winter this will be is partly up to us.

The situation has changed. On the plus side, vaccines have been developed. This is possibly adding to our sense of complacency; “it’s alright – we will have the vaccine soon and we can get back to our old lives”. The problem is, it’s clear that the vaccine is unlikely to arrive here any time soon, and when it does, it won’t be a complete solution. At the moment, we can only be certain that the vaccine seems to make a difference to severity of disease, and that this protection is only conferred after a period of time. It isn’t a magic shot that produces a covid-secure forcefield around you. But the danger is that we will behave as if it is exactly that.

In the meantime, the virus hasn’t taken the summer off. It has been busy mutating into forms that seem to be able to spread more easily between people. This means we should be much more consistent about our protective behaviours; distancing, washing hands, mask-wearing, and using the tracer app.

All this funnels into my hypothesis that we are not being plain complacent: we are enjoying pleasure and security with the majority of people not using the QR codes to scan in, even if aware of the potential risks.

The following example might give us some clues about how to change things. When doctors are given good arguments to wash their hands from an infection control point of view, it doesn’t appear to influence their rate of hand-washing much. Why would we expect this to be any different for the general public and their use of the Covid tracer app?

Just like us, doctors and nurses are creatures of habit, and heavily influenced by the surrounding culture.

If we see others washing their hands in the bathroom, that’s what we do – but crucially, when nobody’s doing it, there’s also pressure not to wash either. And maybe if we are surrounded by other people who don’t seem to be using the app, an alternative explanation might be that the surrounding culture we live in considers checking in with the app as unimportant. See how hard it is to find a QR code to check-in in some premises. Watch to see how many others around you are checking in using QR codes. We are surrounded with unsaid cues that says it’s not really important.

There’s more: the evidence is that people can be seen as being unusual or somehow thinking themselves as above others if they do. And that dials directly into the Kiwi tall-poppy syndrome: the cultural phenomenon of mocking people who think highly of themselves.

Are we not checking in using the app because we don’t want to be seen as weird, or be accused of being too up ourselves?

The answers to increasing the use of the Covid-19 tracing app isn’t solely about increasing awareness of the reasons for doing so – which is where the main efforts have been focused so far.

Building a habit essentially requires a 3-step pattern. First, there needs to be a reminder, a trigger that starts the behaviour. This is seeing the full-colour version of the QR code poster. It acts as a reminder to scan in. But you need to see it. It needs to be everywhere and clearly visible. Second, there’s the routine you’re trying to establish; that is getting out your phone and firing up the app to check-in. This needs to be as easy as possible. And thirdly, there needs to be a reward; the benefit you get from checking-in. If the reward is emotionally positive, then the cycle forms a positive feedback loop that tells your brain, “the next time you see a code, do this QR code scan again.”

This is all great. This is how new habits are started. But how can we make new habits, like scanning the QR code, stick? The missing piece of the puzzle is identity.

Some people think we have got habit formation backwards. Instead of starting a new habit and hoping that repeating this new habit changes our behaviour in a lasting way, we need to adopt the new identity of being who we want to become. Therefore, we start by saying, “I am a QR code scanner. That’s who I am”. Then, you go about re-affirming this new identity with a series of small wins. And through these small wins, you get an emotional buzz out of acting in line with your new identity, meaning that your new habit is likely to sustain itself for the long term.

So, here’s my 4 -step plan on increasing the rate of QR code scanning in New Zealand.

First. Decide the person you want to be: a QR code scanner. Then start to act like a QR code scanner. Scan at every opportunity you have in your daily life. Start a social movement – on social media, with your friends and family – connecting people who identify as QR code scanners. Celebrate small wins, smile at others when you scan, smile when you see others scan. Make it rewarding.

Second, availability of the tools we need to use is a big part of the solution. We need to increase availability of QR codes, and make them really easy to use. Not on a back wall on a scrappy black and white pinned to a wall too high out of reach for people trying to pay while holding a child in their arms, but on tables, and the cash till, on the door as you enter the premises, and everywhere in between. By the way, the colour identity of the Unite Against Covid-19 is a prominent reminder to pay attention – don’t diminish it by printing in black and white – this really matters. Even small inconveniences will reduce the chance of people scanning.

Third, aim to reach a tipping point in the culture where we get used to seeing people scan in, all the time. Then we will not fear sticking out so much and being judged by others. Building a positive emotional experience, and increasing the number of people who we see around us is going to be critical in facilitating this culture change.

Fourth, help people link checking in with a common event. For example, make it so that people scan on entry. Have waiting staff ask people if they have checked in or not, or door staff remind people to do so if they haven’t. Or having the QR code as part of the payment protocol may work too – but not every visit comes with a payment interaction, e.g. visiting a library. The more you can link the behaviour you want to increase to a behaviour people are already doing, the more likely it is you’ll see it develop into a habit.

Adopting an identity as a QR code scanner, availability of codes, supportive positive culture, and building a habit through linked behaviours. Do this consistently. It’s not being slack. It just takes a number of factors to build a habit. Start now and get the supporting infrastructure right, and we could possibly escape an “unstoppable winter”.

Dr Sarb Johal is an expert in emergency management and disaster psychology. His advice to the NZ Government was central in our world-leading response that saw Covid-19 stamped out in our communities in 2020. His just-published book Steady: Keeping calm in a world gone viral is available in bookstores and online as an e-book now. Equanimity Publishing. $40. www.sarbjohal.com

Dr Sarb Johal is a clinical psychologist and the author of the just-released book 'Steady: Keeping calm in a world gone viral – a guide to looking after our mental health during a crisis'.

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