Study Shows Behavior Modification Crucial to Stopping COVID-19

Researchers found Australians maintained hygiene but resist distancing. Courtesy of University of Sydney

One of the longest-running studies examining COVID-prevention behaviors shows hygiene changes have been sustained but not complex changes, like social distancing, with important policy implications.

A longitudinal survey from just after the first lockdown in Australia in 2020 shows people have maintained simple hygiene measures in response to the pandemic but reduced their physical distancing over time, indicating that lockdowns may be required to stop outbreaks.

The study by University of Sydney researchers in the School of Public Health and Sydney Health Literacy Lab, Faculty of Medicine and Health, found people who tended to keep up distancing behaviors were more concerned about the pandemic, had stronger feelings of responsibility towards their community, and felt more confident about their ability to keep up the behaviors.

It found behavioral fatigue alone cannot be blamed for waning distancing, noting that the way COVID-19 behaviors change depends on how readily these behaviors can be shaped into habits, how difficult it is to navigate these behaviors in different social and physical environments, and how concerned people feel about the pandemic.

“Behaviors that compete with social interaction, like distancing behaviors, are particularly challenging to maintain over time,” said Dr. Julie Ayre, the lead author.

The findings publish today in the journal PLOS ONE.

Dr Julie Ayre said the findings support the argument for localized lockdowns to manage outbreaks in Australia. “For serious outbreaks, governments must act swiftly, given that distancing behaviors have shown to decrease over time – sometimes even in periods when there is a higher number of cases,” she said.

The senior author Dr. Carissa Bonner said at a minimum, clear messaging was crucial. “The more complex behaviors like social distancing will not be maintained voluntarily without clear instructions from government,” Bonner said.

“If we are looking to lift restrictions while cases are still circulating, that needs to be done on the assumption that people will find it hard to social distance unless they are clearly told what they have to do.”

Source: University of Sydney