COVID crackdown: Fines are fine but bring on norm entrepreneurs
The numbers of infections are back up and rising rapidly. Gone are the hopeful days of summer when we might have thought we were wrestling the contagion to the ground.
Ontario has finally started to act. What to do about schools continues to be contentious with fears that they will become sites of spread. But the province has at least reacted to large gatherings and the dangers that they pose: weddings, funerals, parties, etc. Permissible numbers have been reduced to 25 for outdoors and 10 for indoors. Many believe that bars should be restricted if not entirely closed down. Action on them is urgently needed.
Getting people to observe these constraints and, perhaps, even more drastic ones is a critical issue. Questions of compliance with mitigation efforts have been ongoing from the start of restrictions to minimize spread of the virus. A continuing issue is the disproportionate impact on minorities, the homeless and others because of discriminatory enforcement. As the police enforce the laws, they themselves must be policed.
Premier Doug Ford, in that inimitable style of his, threatens tough sanctions and aggressive tactics (as he has before). “We’re coming after you” is his battle cry against those flouting various restrictions. Huge fines are to be levied against transgressors. This no-nonsense approach can work for some but it has limits.
Most individuals obey the law most of the time. Such is the case for COVID-19 restrictions. But how do we get the ones who tilt toward defiance to conform? Just a few violators can spread a lot of contagion. More is needed than Ford’s “threaten and punish.” For one thing, sanctioning individual non-compliance means that the harm has already been done. For another, threats of punishment simply do not deter some would-be violators (think of those misguided/malevolent ones who insist their civil liberties are being violated by requirements to wear a mask.)
Enter “norm entrepreneurs.” The force of laws does come from the threat of sanctions if they are not obeyed. But most laws achieve high levels of compliance because norms (social attitudes about what should be done) are aligned with them. There’s a whole body of literature on norms and their relationship to law. What is needed are highly visible and respected individuals who could promote even greater levels of compliance: norm entrepreneurs.
Ryan Reynolds is a famous and youngish actor from British Columbia. He’s also become a norm entrepreneur, helping to control the spread of the contagion with a public service announcement (PSA) in which he warns of the dangers of the contagion. It has the brilliant tag line: “Don’t kill my Mom.” The PSA is thus directed to young people warning of the harm that can come to them if they become infected and, perhaps even more importantly, the damage they can do to others, especially the vulnerable. The actor Paul Rudd is doing something along the same lines for the “Mask Up America” campaign. There also were some earlier efforts by individual celebrities using their own social media accounts to urge people to support mitigation efforts.
The government should enlist the aid of various notables to promote a message of compliance. Margaret Atwood may persuade some. Drake others. Highly visible individuals in particular communities still others. And so forth.
The Premier’s blunt and threatening style has its place. But it needs to be accompanied by a chorus of prominent voices that seek to persuade that compliance is in everyone’s interest; that falling into line with these revised restrictions is the best way to prevent the imposition of even more drastic ones.
Shakespeare in Richard III speaks of “the winter of our discontent.” We’ll learn anew the meaning of that phrase. The contagion stalks us with invigorated malevolence while the nights grow longer and the days grow colder. The virus must be controlled – lest its havoc be unbounded.