Leaders seeking public compliance with SOP should inspire confidence, stop making U-turns.
THE Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the world into a prolonged state of crisis and like it or not, it will continue to do so. New variants, vaccine shortages and the struggling economy have been on rotation of the list of difficulties, but the spotlight is back on coordinating the fight against the pandemic.
Both successes and failures have shaken the state of order at home and abroad. This not only raises questions about the longevity of such order but also changes our understanding and expectation of leaders, the sources of their power and its use.
Today, most, if not all, governments are experiencing a Covid-19 “stress test” that can make or break their credibility. While their position allows them to introduce and enforce stricter measures to contain the outbreak, not all methods employed are considered effective and compelling for the people to follow.
The example that continuously makes headlines are the coercive measures to ensure compliance with the standard operating procedure (SOP). Fines and jail time are reserved for those who defied the SOP to curb the virus’ spread. There are also attempts at negative reinforcements, where citizens are expected to comply with the SOP if they want to avoid a total lockdown.
While it is one of the more straightforward strategies, since it is easy to implement, it has often resulted in the opposite. The lack of immediate results shows that cooperation is affected by the degree to which the behaviour is seen as both acceptable and widespread.
In Malaysia, the persistence of SOP breaches and other examples of non-compliance are publicised. While these have not incited mass demonstrations, such as in Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany, there is concern that reports of non-compliant behaviour would “normalise” it.
It shows that a reliance on strict coercion produces the opposite effects. Acts of compliance come from “owning” collective concerns. Thus, it is important for decision-makers and civilians to see themselves as part of a larger group with the same cause. Only then are they unlikely to compromise on their self-interest.
In difficult times, a nation needs leaders who can lead by example through words and actions. They have to highlight the role models and experts able to facilitate strategies against the pandemic. Expertise must be maintained to ensure that the rakyat still trust the experts.
This is easier said than done, considering that power, influence and trust are not static elements. The government’s attempt to hit a moving target has resulted in contradictory and confusing messaging. There are constant changes and retractions of directives and policies based on public feedback and political criticism. This, too, affects the trust in experts, like those from the Health Ministry and its director-general. The public is questioning their directives and statistics because of the lack of tangible progress coupled with increasing infections, deaths and political discourse.
Inasmuch as elements of compliance come from the competency of the leadership, the cooperation must come its intended recipients. For results to happen, we should not forget that this is a two-way street. The leaders among the rakyat, from community leaders to even heads of families should play their part in keeping each other accountable and safe during the pandemic. This not only helps reduce the trust deficit, but also to provide other means of self-sufficiency while proper strategies can be developed and implemented to combat the outbreak.
While challenging and questioning our assumptions can be an uncomfortable experience, especially in such difficult times, it needs to be done for the safety of the population. The impact of a crisis depends on our ability to mitigate its intensity, duration, underlying causes and broader economic consequences.
Progress towards managing and overcoming the pandemic needs rational behaviour from an entire population in a time-sensitive manner. Support must come from compliance and vice versa. To get that, it needs to be understood that compliance comes from a complex combination of skilful management of influence, persuasion and communication. It should never be achieved through quick solutions kept on life support through fearmongering and blame-gaming.