When the outbreak in Italy began, authorities began by locking down affected “red zone” areas in the north. As cases continued to spread, the entire country was put on lockdown on March 9, with those who break the rules threatened with $232 fines and six months' prison time.
In London, where people flocked to parks to bask in a sunny weekend despite government advice to stay home, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned people to take the guidelines more seriously or face further restrictions, before adding, “I don't want to do that.”
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Monday that citizens who fail to practice government-advised social distancing measures were “very selfish,” while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo described people gathering in parks as a “mistake”, “arrogant”, and “insensitive.”
But Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioral Science at Warwick Business School, told CNN that this did not go far enough, saying western leaders had been “very mixed in their messaging” as they gradually closed bars, restaurants, theaters and schools over the past week — and urged the public to listen to the advice to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“When people are being advised quite gently to do something, I don't think one should view them as being necessarily outrageously unreasonable in going ahead and doing it anyway,” he said.
“Because the message they're implicitly getting is it isn't all that important, because if it was really important, we tell you. So we don't say things like, ‘we advise you to stop at red lights, we advise you to drive on this side of the road' … We just say you just have to. If you don't, you're breaking the law.”
Germany has implemented a “contact ban” rather than a full nationwide lockdown with Chancellor Angela Merkel saying in a news conference Sunday that the country would ban all gatherings of more than two people, excluding those living together, to “reduce contact” and curb the spread of the virus.
Outraged people on social media have been sharing images of busy streets and tourist spots, and branding those ignoring the rules as “Covidiots.” Vacationers have been flooding to remote communities, raising fears that small hospitals could very quickly reach capacity.
So why hasn't that happened? Yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom told young people at beaches, “Don't be selfish.” Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called on people to “do the right things now,” and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison criticized a “disregard” of social distancing rules.
But Chater says these comments aren't enough. “There's a huge communication failure,” he said. “We've been looking at China, we can also look at Korea, we can see that there are strategies that actually do work, so it's not purely theoretical.
“In China, the main thing has been just a very heavy lockdown, probably a heavier lockdown than it strictly needed,” he said. “But we know that a really severe lockdown will work. And in Korea, people have had much more freedom to move about, but they've had extremely vigorous testing on a massive scale. Probably a combination of those strategies is required.”
Hemingway's, a bar in Hong Kong's Discovery Bay area, which has a large foreign population, last week issued a “warning to anyone returning from Europe” that CCTV footage of anyone violating the rules would be sent to the authorities.
Some European countries are now taking more action to slow the spread of the virus. In France, thousands of fines have been issued for those breaking the rules against all but essential trips outside, and more parks and beaches are starting to close.
But if leaders want people to do more, they must make it “mandatory,” says Chater — before it's too late.
CNN's Steve George, James Griffiths and Sharon Braithwaite also contributed to this report