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The world does not owe us anything – and that is good (what to do with people who refuse to wear face masks )

(translation note: This article was first published in Slovak language here. Some references are about situation in Slovakia, but the main points are valid in general. This article was written during coronavirus pandemic, and wearing face masks for protection is not just expected, but also mandatory in some countries)

As a result of current pandemics, social media are full of shaming of people who go out of their houses without a face mask, how it’s necessary to lock people at home, and how they need to be punished if they don’t comply. But this amount of negativity does not correlate at all with what I actually see in the world.

In Czechia people without masks get fines, in other countries people who go for a walk in the mountains or kayaking are chased by the police. This social pressure may work to force those people to try to be less visible, because they fear they would be chased or chastised. But this is not a correct approach and it’s harming us.

Responsible for yourself

We’ll talk about efficiency of such measures later. But before that, I have this suggestion. My personal attitude is that only I am responsible for my health. When I go out, I take all the protective measures I can (including glasses). I avoid proximity of other people. If I go to nature, I pick trails where nobody else goes. If I need to cross someone’s path, I breathe out a few meters before, walk by, and breathe in (through face mask) when there’s enough distance between us.

If I don’t want to get infected, I limit my contact with other people to a necessary minimum.

Why is this good? Because I have 100% control about what I do. I don’t have any control about what others do.
It’s an illusion that everyone will follow the quarantine measures, no matter how many fines the local police imposes. When someone puts a thin scarf in front of their face that is a nice gesture, but for me that person is a potential “covid-man” and I avoid him ideally from at least 4 meter distance.

When I behave responsibly trying to not get infected, whatever else others do is a nice and pleasant surprise. If I go out and most of the people wear face masks and step aside, I’m pleasantly surprised and I’m happy that they take it seriously. If someone is not doing that, I just take it as their own decision – I don’t know all the circumstances of their thought process. Maybe it’s someone who can’t even afford the face mask.

With this attitude I will not be angry or in a negative mood – everyone is either a neutral case (based on their behavior), or a nice surprise.

From my personal point of view, everyone is a potential infection carrier/spreader, and it’s my responsibility to protect myself.

Decentralization of rules

At the same time we need to respect private rules. Why am I not calling for central rules?
Because central rules can’t take into account local circumstances.

Our new fetish is to follow which country bans what, without thinking about efficiency.
Going for a walk to forests of Kysuce (a region in Northern Slovakia) is for me pretty OK – I usually don’t meet anyone, and if yes, that person is quite far from me and I can just wave hello from 20 meter distance. The only person who would put me into danger of contracting the virus would be the policeman who would want to give me a fine.

With private (local) rules it’s different – they can react on risk levels and needs of their customers. If a pharmacy wants to protect employees and customers, they can impose rule of “only 1 person with a face mask is allowed at the same time”. In Zeleny obchod (a grocery shop in Slovakia) in Freshmarket you have to wear a face mask, you have to disinfect your hands (they have hands-free dispenser), and they give you free plastic glove. They will tell you where to stand while waiting. This achieves two goals. First is that I prefer to shop in this store, compared to a supermarket where people touch vegetables (I hear they touch pastry, but I don’t eat it anymore). And of second goal is also to protect employees of this store (who of course also wear protection).

Local rules are adjustable. In our home we have a special mode of conduct now – only the household members are allowed to come in, nobody else. It does not matter if they have a stamp of a hospital director about being healthy, or are a family member. Unless we give the permission, entry is not allowed. There are other places where it is allowed to enter only while wearing a face mask. And that is how it’s supposed to be. It nicely shows the decentralization of rules and the beauty of “local discrimination”. These different rules compete, and I can take a decision whether I will go to a place where people touch the pastry with bare hands, or to a store where you can’t even enter without disinfecting your hands and using plastic gloves. This, together with other factors (what they sell, their price, etc.) allows me to decide what is best for me. But this decision is not right for everybody. Someone doesn’t mind washing the vegetables extra thoroughly (we do this anyway) or heating their bread in a microwave oven, and they’re happy that they saved some money. From the central vantage point we are never able to decide which way is better – because it’s different for everyone.

Individual rules work in a competition of private providers. This case makes it clear that the society discovers right rules on the go. People often think that we follow laws that are centrally given, but in reality we mostly follow private rules. You can take your dog to some shopping centers, but not others. If I don’t like dogs, I go where I know there will be none. If I want to walk my dog and buy some groceries, I go where the dogs are allowed. If I don’t care, I can go anywhere.

This process is called the rule discovery, or even better rulescaping. Having uniform rules for all cases is counterproductive. Even in parallel society, we don’t have to look through the uniformity lens. Some rules are valid only for community members, other rules for visitors. Some rules are only valid in one part of the building, others in a different one. If there’s a rule that is preventing people from coming and we want to host more people (which may not always be the goal), we have to reimagine the rule.

So – world owes us nothing, but we should respect local rules. And it’s these local rules that we use for our decisions – where to go, where to buy our groceries, and so on.

With this attitude we can always stay positive. First of all we protect ourselves. Nobody else is responsible for our health, we are. We leave the enforcement of local rules to those who imposed them. If we see that the rule we expect is not really enforced, it means that in reality this rule does not exist and we should not go to this place again. If the grocery store has people fondling the pastry and they get away with it, it means the rules are written, but not enforced. Which means they are just placebo rules and we should not buy our groceries there.

This way we are always happy. We don’t expect anyone else to solve our problems. Nobody owes us anything. We can decide to only go to places where the rules are to our liking. As a benefit we support these places by spending our money there, which is a good signal that we like their rules.

But but but … effectivity!

People often invoke effectivity, but rarely measure it. Closing the borders makes sense if there is a significant difference between probability of foreign transmission of the virus, and the local one. But that is no longer the case in Europe – the probability of me being infected by someone from Hainburg (Austria) is very similar to the probability of me being infected by someone from Senec (Slovakia). That means that the guy who is preventing people from crossing an imaginary line on the border is completely useless. These people would be more useful if they would enforce order in mobile testing centers. We have one in Ružinov, four in Petržalka, seven in Dolne Hony (note – all these are districts of Bratislava, capitol of Slovakia), right? No, we don’t.

Border controls are another clear case of placebo effect, to make people feel that “government is doing something”. Yes, government can do something. It’s called testing and contact tracing. This is what worked so well in South Korea. There’s no need to centrally control who can and cannot go and where, what is really needed is testing. If a person is tested positive and thus infectious, someone needs to sit down with that person and ask where he was, who did he meet and talked to in last few weeks, and so on. Laws allowing mass surveillance through mobile phones are not going to be helpful – the data is not precise enough to help (were these people really together or was one of them on 1st floor and the other on 3rd? Was there a wall between them? Were they sitting on a bench 10 meters away, or did they talk to each other?).

What really works requires a lot of effort. Testing, really spending time with people to make sure they remember everyone who they interacted with. And then testing all those people and people who they met. Testing must be easier than refiling the tank. Register an email address or other contact through an app, show the QR code, get the swab, and you can leave. Human interaction could only take a few seconds. In 24 hours you should receive a message whether you are positive, and if you are, someone should call you and go through all the questions asking where you’ve been and who have you met.

That would be efficient. To give fines to people walking outside (like they do in Czech Republic) is dumb. Do you think announcing emergency situation would decompose the virus’ RNA sequence because viruses are allergic to emergency situations?

In reality, many people don’t ask about efficiency. What they want to see is that “the government is doing something”. When they see someone without a face mask, they post five statuses on social media, calling police to intervene. But why would these people not protect themselves in the first place?

Conclusion

The world does not owe us anything. Only we are responsible for our health and our happiness. But asking someone else (politicians, health workers, neighbors) to solve our problems seems to be the latest fashion (entitlement, social justice warriors).

I don’t doubt at all that the situation is serious – it is very serious and that’s why we need to take extra precautions. I’ve written about it in my other blog (in Slovak) – what to do, why we need to start with ourselves and why this situation is so problematic. And during our Biohacking meetup we discussed about what some biohackers do to decrease the risk of infection (recording in Slovak here). There you can also find out what we do to manage stress and fear.

Fingers crossed to everyone. Stay positive, people really do everything they can. I am pleasantly surprised about how people reacted.

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