Coronavirus: Will cabin fever give way to spring fever?

As the weather gets warmer, a critical mass is being asked to hold out long enough to flatten the curve, but that may not be realistic

Spring is here. The start of shorts season is traditionally a time when throngs of people tumble out of their winter dens and revel in each other’s close company in the city’s agoras, patios and parks.

But this year, spring will shape us by what we choose not to do. It is a temptation to be resisted, against our most deeply held human and civic instincts.

Playgrounds and park amenities are off limits. Patios, too. The cherry blossom festival at High Park is in limbo. And beyond city boundaries, provincial and federal parks are closed to hikers and campers.

As the weather gets warmer, will a critical mass hold out long enough to flatten the curve, suppress community transmission and save lives – or will cabin fever give way to spring fever?

On the legal front, Torontonians are now required to keep two metres apart in parks and public spaces or face a fine of up to $5,000, which follows Ontario’s ban on social gatherings of five or more people.

Yet there are some limits to legal enforcement. Mayor John Tory says there are not enough resources to impose a ban on parks and that a total lockdown of the city is not being considered at this time. While other countries issue fines to people who go to their cottages, Premier Doug Ford says Ontario is not in a position to restrict inter-provincial travel.

On Friday, Ford revealed that models project as many as 1,600, or as few as 200, Ontarians will die in April as a result of COVID-19. Social distancing and self-isolation should produce a best-case scenario – so long as public compliance is high.

With lives in the balance, the moral stakes of our behaviour as a city are the starkest they have ever been. The message from public leaders was sober and consistent.

“What happens next here in Toronto, our story, depends entirely on your actions, on our collective actions,” said Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, at a Friday press briefing.

Our leaders are asking us to be Toronto the Good. That sounds reasonable, but is it realistic?

“Thinking of what we know about social psychology, it seems like this goes against all the things that human evolution led us toward,” says William Cunningham, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “The human brain starts to have a stress response when we’re not around other people.

“It’s a much harder task than we are giving people credit for. We’re hearing ‘please stay in,’ as if it’s going to be easy when it’s probably one of the hardest things that we can do as people.”

While he holds out hope that people will respond to the escalation of public education and social distancing measures, Cunningham suspects greater enforcement might be required.

“There are times when we aren’t designed for this,” he explains. “This may be one of those times when we can’t trust people, and I hate to say it because I love to trust. But we might actually have to have more rules, not ‘please do this.’ We might have to seriously enforce this.”

If other countries are any guide, we may be in for an uphill battle.

Police officials in the UK are warning of “isolation fatigue,” after warmer weather recently drew 3,000 people to sunbathe at one public beach.

While a substantial majority appear to have heeded the calls to public responsibility in Toronto so far, there have been many reports of some who have not. The city says 311 continues to receive complaints about non-essential businesses being open and people gathering without regard for physical distancing, especially in popular parks and green spaces like Christie Pits, High Park and Trinity Bellwoods. As of April 4, 311 received 1,409 complaints from Toronto residents related to “irresponsible or illegal behaviour in our parks.”

Over the last few days, enforcement teams have upheld quasi bans on large gatherings in popular parks by turning away more than 1,000 cars, including at Bluffer’s Park.

“We’ve heard of street parties and gatherings of kids and parents socializing scattered around the city, unfortunately,” said Da Villa on Friday, adding that the City has identified “hot spots where people are putting their individual needs ahead of the needs of the community.”

The provincial numbers presented a simple binary of possible outcomes influenced by public choices that could dampen the effects of psychic numbing, the process by which willingness to help decreases as the number of victims in a tragedy increases.

Modelling infection and mortality rates is a highly complex task that experts say the public should treat like weather forecasting. Building trust and motivating good behaviour at a time when the best available information and projections can change rapidly is challenging.

“Experts are working during a crisis with a limited amount of data on which to base their recommendations and frequently need to alter their guidance as time passes,” observes Sylvia Bashevkin, a professor of political science at U of T. “People get frustrated and confused and this reinforces their view that experts are not very knowledgeable.”

That is just one thread in a knot of interrelated social trust issues that could frustrate the government’s efforts at moral suasion during the pandemic, suggests Bashevkin, who recently wrote about social cohesion in the context of the pandemic.

“Research suggests that higher levels of formal education tend to reduce social deference,” she notes, adding that “the highly individualized way people consume what passes for information in our times” also contributes to this trend.

Canadians’ trust in institutions has declined in recent years, according to multiple surveys. One index found that overall trust in institutions fell significantly last year, with the largest decline in news media. Canadians’ preferred information source also flipped, from favouring editorial news content in 2016, to preferring word of mouth in 2019.

A mid-March poll saw a rise in Canadians’ trust in official information sources, including their local health authorities, and a belief that federal and provincial governments are responding to the pandemic well.

Data suggests that there is a relationship between trust in institutions and trust in other people. That is especially relevant now because our motivation to abide by social distancing will depend to an extent on our trust that other people are taking the same precautions. 

“There needs to be a norm that people aren’t violating,” says Cunningham. “I saw a mother and her child go under the caution tape to use a slide – so how do I explain that to my two-year-old? My worry is that when it’s warmer I’ll still see people playing frisbee, and it’ll be harder and harder to feel like we should be sacrificing when not everyone’s in it together.”

The latest evidence is that more Torontonians are getting the message. But time will tell if the incremental approach of using enforcement teams in targeted hot spots and that emphasize public education and reserve penalties in the form of fines for the worst and offenders will be sustainable over the coming weeks.

Tory used another tack on Friday: bargaining. “I’ve got a 3-for-1 deal for everyone,” he said. “Save money by not getting fined, save lives and get this crisis over with faster.”

The pandemic is currently projected to last between 18 months and two years, with possibly two or more waves of the virus over that time frame, according to the head of Public Health Ontario. Suppression measures are not expected to be in place for the entire length of time, though densely populated cities like Toronto are likely to have measures in place the longest, he added.

Besides isolation fatigue, other challenges include the diffusion of responsibility across large numbers of people, the distancing of actions from their consequences, and the reality that the benefits of social distancing may not be directly observed or felt.

Perhaps the most important thing anyone can do now is to try to fortify their mental health and not despair that our collective efforts are futile. One way to do that is to go outside and take a walk.

That can be a challenge for the many who live in dense areas without access to green space. Some Toronto urbanists are calling on the city to close streets to vehicles to make way for pedestrians and cyclists.

In recent days, the public health messaging has adjusted slightly so that while it does not explicitly advise against walking, neither does it openly encourage it. Beyond the immediate mental health benefits, Cunningham believes that taking a walk outside could, paradoxically, raise our commitment to social distancing.

“I’ve noticed while walking around that there’s been this weird coordinated dance on the street, that we can either frame as avoiding each other, or as having a coordinated dance,” he says. “We’re not avoiding, we’re doing it together for a common purpose. A sense of smiling, nodding, doing it for one another. The non-verbals build up, and it almost feels like a physical touch.”

This strange dance could be a wellspring of social solidarity in the warmer weeks ahead.

Expressions of Toronto’s resilience are taking on new forms, from the banging of pots and pans to thank everyday heroes working on the frontlines, to the sounds of impromptu music performances that filter out of living room windows and into the streets.

The city’s shared pandemic identity was crystallized on an East York street this past Saturday night, when neighbours gathered on their porches to sing and play instruments. They began with “O Canada,” and followed it up with Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It.”

The sequence of songs was oddly appropriate. This is, after all, the land of peace, order, and good government – our way to not take it has always been at a safe, responsible distance.

Spring isn’t dead, it just lives on in new ways.


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