New restrictions were imposed last weekend. We now have to wear face masks in public spaces and show the CoronaCheck app at more places to gain entry. Will people follow the rules?

“Frankly, I don’t think so, although the restrictions themselves are necessary and useful. Certain measures, such as the face mask mandate, have got a bad rap because the government kept changing its mind. The rules don’t make any sense anymore. We currently have to wear face masks in the corridors, where we pass each other for a fleeting moment, but we don’t have to wear them inside lecture theatres, where we sit on each other’s lip for two hours. From a scientific point of view, that makes no sense whatsoever, and people know it. When people are breaking the rules, it’s not always a conscious decision on their part. Sometimes it’s hard to follow the rules when they don’t make any sense.”

Matthias Wieser is Professor of Clinical psychology at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences and conducts research on emotions, pain and fear, among other things. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, he and Marta Andreatta examined how 4,100 German students responded to the crisis and how that affected their attitude towards the coronavirus regulations.

What should the government have done to increase the likelihood of people following the rules?

“They could have created a sense of urgency right from the start and convinced people that we all have to be responsible, so that we all feel like we are contributing to the attainment of a shared goal: regaining our freedom just a little bit sooner. Other countries have done a better job of that, I think, such as Denmark.”

So what was it the Danes did better?

“In Denmark, the government focused less on telling people that they had to do certain things, and more on our having a shared goal we are all working towards, which is putting an end to the spread of the virus. If we can manage that, we’ll be able to relax the restrictions sooner. In the Netherlands, the government’s main message was: these are the rules, now follow them. They provided less clarity on why these rules were being implemented. In addition, the Danes were more transparent about what scientists did and didn’t know about the virus. This helps, as we also found in our study on students in Germany. People are more likely to follow the rules if you’re transparent and clear than if you’re telling them what to do on the basis of fear. That, essentially, was the conclusion we drew.”

Some 10 percent of the population don’t want to be vaccinated. The government will probably have a very hard time convincing these people even now, no matter what arguments they use. Do you think that percentage might have been lower if the government’s policy had been more consistent?

“Maybe certain groups who haven’t received enough information can still be convinced. However, the real anti-vaxxers who’ve made a very conscious decision not to receive the vaccine won’t be convinced. But I don’t think they’re the problem. We’re doing quite well in terms of vaccination rates – better than, say, Germany. But of course, we could do better. The supplementary, less strict measures we have yet to implement might have been more widely supported if the government had been more consistent.”

How could the government have been more consistent?

“Face masks are the best example of something that went wrong in the Netherlands. The face mask policy keeps changing. The government started by saying they’re not the slightest bit effective. Now they’re being presented as a vital part of the solution. I remember a moment when here in Rotterdam we had this one street where face masks were mandatory for two weeks, but literally only on one side of the street. They weren’t mandatory on the other side of the street. Anyone can see that that’s not a useful measure.

“Of course face masks are useful, but I hardly think people will believe it’s a useful measure that will help us bring down infection rates now that they’ve been made compulsory again.”

Perhaps a super consistent policy wouldn’t have worked either. If the Prime Minister had said in March 2020 that we’d be wearing face masks everywhere for the entire year, there would have been no support for that policy either. It would have been very consistent, but maybe a little over the top.

“That’s true. At the same time, though, it would have been more widely supported than the self-contradictory messages we did end up receiving. If you first say that face masks don’t work, then say that they do work, and the next time you make them mandatory in corridors but not in lecture theatres, you’re completely destroying your message.”

Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Last year, just after the start of the pandemic, you examined the way in which some four thousand German and Dutch students responded to the coronavirus crisis. You found that well-informed students were more likely to follow the coronavirus regulations than students who were afraid of the virus. Why do you think that was?

“We asked them how often they watched TV or followed the COVID-19 news in some other way, and also how they were feeling, and whether they were following the rules. At the beginning of the crisis, it was all about social distancing, washing your hands, not visiting too many people. We saw that, rather than fear or negative emotions, it was how often they followed the news and how well they were informed that predicted to what extent they would follow the rules. Much more so than negative emotions. Well informed students were more aware that they might infect their grandparents, for example. So the conclusion was that the government should focus more on providing information than on creating negative emotions or fear. However, I should note here that our study was limited to students, which is to say, a group of highly educated people. So we can’t be certain that that which was true for them is true for other groups as well.”

Did your study highlight any differences between the ways German and Dutch students responded to the coronavirus crisis?

“No, they responded very similarly, particularly in terms of stress and mental health issues. Symptoms of depression due to isolation and restrictions increased a great deal in that year and a half. But in the most recent month, the number of students reporting depression has gone down. That shows that more freedom and being allowed to meet more people immediately has a positive impact on your emotional wellbeing.”

What does the fact that they suffered such severe depression in that year and a half mean for the future? We’re not currently in lockdown, but there’s no telling what the future will bring. Can students, and the rest of society for that matter, handle another lockdown?

“I wouldn’t say so. We might be able to manage a two-week lockdown, but a few months? That’s something we should seek to avoid at pretty much all costs, because the mental anxiety will only increase if we lead isolated lives, not just in students but in children as well. So it’s good that we’re only seeing smaller but effective measures being implemented at present, which do not completely stop us from meeting up with others. Needless to say, this crisis probably also means that we’ll see more people with mental health issues in the next few years, and they must be offered therapy.”

Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Have Mark Rutte and Hugo de Jonge acted in line with your conclusions?

“I think they have appealed to people’s emotions too many times, even though it’s better to provide transparent information and create a sense of togetherness. Of course they tried to do that, but I don’t think they were very successful at it. Obviously, it’s tricky, because the provision of information, too, can result in fear. These things are not entirely unrelated.”

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