“I’ll do what I want”: Why the People Ignoring Social Distancing Orders Just Won’t Listen

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As a few cling to old mottos of patriotism and perseverance in the face of the coronavirus crisis, one expert warns it could be a “formula for disaster.”

As a few cling to old mottos of patriotism and perseverance in the face of the coronavirus crisis, one expert warns it could be a “formula for disaster.”

The world has officially separated into two camps: the rule followers, observant of social distancing and hopeful of flattening the curve; and the risk-takers, who have been storming the world’s beaches, bars, and burger joints in spite of the coronavirus — and government and public health efforts to curtail its spread.

The new virus has pushed dozens of countries to implement strict isolation methods to prevent a global health crisis. In China, coronavirus measures were hard to evade, as authorities sealed apartment buildings and scanned millions for rising body temperatures. But in the United States, Australia, and much of Europe, these restrictions are harder to devise and enforce, mostly because democratic norms and a strong sense of individual liberty prevail. And so the crisis has also revealed humanity’s tendency to flout the rules.

In recent weeks, people swarmed beaches around the world, from Florida to Bondi Beach in Australia. “If I get corona, I get corona,” one spring breaker told Reuters. “At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.”

Washington, DC, Metro officials practically begged riders not to visit the city’s iconic cherry blossoms, which they did anyway, in droves. Brits took to crowded pubs to chant “f*** coronavirus!” And one woman went viral when she tweeted about her defiant trip to a crowded Red Robin restaurant. “It was delicious,” she tweeted, “and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want.”

Many companies have held on, too, seemingly convinced of their own necessity. Starbucks kept its doors open even as employees organized to protect their health. “Coffee is not essential at all,” one barista told Vice. “Starbucks is not essential.” (The company has since shifted to drive-thru and delivery only.) WeWork, the coworking behemoth, is still open — and charging its members rent — even as several of its facilities were linked to confirmed coronavirus cases. “[W]e have an obligation to keep our buildings open,” company chair Marcelo Claure and CEO Sandeep Mathrani wrote in a memo.

The poor reaction of a small segment of people to ever-stricter quarantine policies comes as no surprise to psychologists, sociologists, and public health experts. No one alive today has experience with a pandemic of this severity, catching even the most experienced researchers off-guard, not to mention the average person sorting through their Facebook feed. Conflicting government messaging has only exacerbated the widespread confusion.

And the prevailing public health advice around coronavirus counters the long-held wisdom that we must “carry on” in a crisis: For at least a century, citizens have believed that in the midst of a disaster, their job is to go on with their daily lives as best they can — otherwise, the enemy will win. Now, the government is telling people the best strategy is to upend their lives entirely.

“We feel like we have to do something,” said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University and author of Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats. But without a good frame of reference for the present crisis, we’ve looked to lessons learned from past calamities, including natural disasters, terrorism, war, and economic collapse, to guide us. “We’re a little bit like generals fighting the last war,” he said.

But the old rules no longer apply. Planetary problems such as a pandemic or climate change are different, said Amy Fairchild, a public health ethicist and the dean of Ohio State University’s College of Public Health. “In this moment in time, ‘carry on’ could be a formula for disaster.”


When the coronavirus first arrived in the United States, people cast about for comparisons. “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu,” President Trump tweeted on March 9. “It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

Experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a regular at the White House’s coronavirus press briefings, debunked the comparison. “The flu has a mortality of 0.1%,” he told Congress on March 11. “This has a mortality rate of 10 times that.” But the analogy — intended to make an extraordinary threat look like ordinary — persists.

In reality, the coronavirus has no clear analogue. “The normal mechanisms we’re using to predict things don’t work,” said Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University College London who studies human motivation. “Actually, nothing else that has happened before in our lifetimes is relevant or helpful here.”

Many contemporary disaster mantras emerged in past wars, and they often contain a kernel of a consumerist message. At the outset of World War I, British politicians such as Winston Churchill encouraged “business as usual,” suggesting that both companies and citizens should continue to behave just as they did in peacetime. But the status quo eventually gave way to a coordinated defense effort when the state realized it would need to control manufacturing, trade, and commerce to win the war.

Twenty years later, in World War II, the British government coined “Keep Calm and Carry On” to boost morale in anticipation of a Nazi invasion. But it quickly pulped the test posters; other campaigns about courage in a crisis provoked public outcry, as many people found the messages tone-deaf. After half a century, however, the phrase was exhumed — in part as a message to those weathering the Great Recession.

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