Dr. Michael Vallis. Photo: Obesity Canada.

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Are you staying out of parks as a result of fines and Public Health directives to slow down the spread of COVID-19? Are you wearing a mask to the grocery store? How often are you washing your hands? Are you more worried about getting sick yourself or unknowingly infecting someone you love?

Answers to these questions (and many others) will help psychologists understand what messages during this pandemic are working (or not working) to change human behaviour.

“The virus has rapidly spread around the globe, and health authorities have been struggling to slow the spread of infection to protect people and healthcare resources,” reads the invitation to iCare, a global survey. “Your participation will contribute to better understanding the global and collective response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which may be used to improve current and future preventive strategies.”

Sample Survey Question: “What do you think of the actions taken by your government or local health authority to prevent and/or reduce the spread of COVID-19?”

Choose one of the following answers

  • Too strict
  • About right
  • Too lenient

The Montreal Behavioural Medicine Centre which is affiliated with Concordia University has assembled over 100 researchers in more than 20 countries to assess public attitudes and responses to the various measures put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Even within Canada, there is a range in terms of of where people are permitted to exercise outdoors (in Montreal, for example, the parks are open for people to walk at a two-metre distance but the playground or gym equipment is cordoned off to prevent use). Some provinces have shut down construction sites while others have kept them open.

Dr. Michael Vallis is a health psychologist and professor at Dalhousie Medical school who is participating in this research project. He normally works with people who have chronic conditions such as obesity or diabetes to help them manage their behaviour. Vallis says this study during the pandemic aims to enrol 100,000 people who will fill out one or two online surveys over the next few months. This is the link to the survey.

The feedback will be collected and analyzed by the researchers. The findings will be relayed to government officials should they wish to use what has been learned to deliver future messaging around public health and safety.

Whom do you trust and where do you go to get accurate information about the virus and how to protect against it? Public Health officials, the prime minister, the Internet, the news media? Professor Vallis says people who desire certainty may be tempted not to comply with orders or guidelines if the message is unclear or it changes. The issue over whether Canadians need or ought to wear a face mask while out grocery shopping  or more importantly, health-care workers on the front lines in nursing homes and hospitals, is one example where the message changed as the science evolved around COVID-19.

“The advice we were getting at the beginning of the state of emergency was before we were aware of asymptomatic spread,” said Vallis. (Asymptomatic spread refers to people who can transmit the virus to others without displaying any of the symptoms such as fever or dry cough. Scientists can’t yet put a number on what that percentage is.)

“Public Health authorities didn’t want people to stop distancing themselves or get a false sense of security by wearing a mask,” he said.  “But then we found out about asymptomatic transmission and realized while a mask won’t protect you, it can protect other people.”

Wearing a mask is now mandatory for health-care workers and while Public Health has recommended the general public wear a mask in certain situations, it remains a personal choice. How the information was communicated may play into what choices citizens make about many things.

When it comes to occasional examples of people still gathering in large groups despite heavy fines, Vallis wonders and hopes to find out, “What is it that allows people to say, I’ll just do it anyway?”

The Halifax health psychologist is also interested in what may be learned from how the pandemic plays out in other countries. “I’m personally fascinated by what’s going on in Brazil,” Vallis says. “There you have a president who has been downplaying the risk of the virus. Ironically, in the favellas or shantytowns that are run by gangs and are so violent the police won’t go there but only the military, it’s the gangs in the favellas who are organizing social distancing and putting in curfews. So there, a group that is perceived as anti-social is prepared to act when they see that the president is not acting.”

This first 20-minute survey focuses on how much information people have about what measures they are supposed to take to protect each other and how compliant or non-compliant they are when it comes to behaviour. Did you stay in your own backyard after returning from travel? Are you coughing into your elbow?

Vallis says the follow up survey coming early in May will look more at “the emotional impact” of the isolation measures on how we live. “The two real flags that are important to track are domestic abuse and substance abuse,” he says. Sample questions might go something along these lines:  are you drinking or smoking more? How much time do you spend watching Netflix? Playing with children? Are you getting along better, worse, or the same with your life partner?

“This is critically important because different countries are at different stages of outbreak and are deploying different policies,” says Simon Bacon, the co-lead on the iCare project funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. “To be able to really understand what is working and what is not working requires us to capture as broad a cross section of the world as possible. This range of answers will let us compare different policies across the globe.”

And it goes without saying we could be asked to live with some restrictions of one kind or another for many months yet.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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