Saturday, April 18, 2020

A Dog's Eye: The 'Rona dance

There's a particular way people move around the kitchen so as to avoid bumping into each other, thus averting spillages and other accidents, and generally respecting people's space. I call it the kitchen dance. People who live with other people get very good at it. In families and shared homes, people quickly learn the moves.

As a writer I am a keen observer of human behaviour, but lately my surreptitious surveillance has been focused on people's actions in supermarket aisles and at the checkouts. 

A new dance has now hit the polished floors of our grocery emporiums: the social distancing disco. Most people are moving differently now. Instead of excusing themselves to reach in front of someone who is standing and deciding, people now wait. And I'm one of those people. We're moving around like we think other people are infectious. Sliding, shuffling, shifting position, speeding up and slowing down to avoid possible contagion. Our assumption is that any one of our fellow shoppers carries COVID-19.

The atmosphere in the supermarket has definitely changed. It feels different. Minor changes like maintaining a safe distance when queuing and packing our own bags have been taken on board without fuss. I don't hear much complaining about the restrictions being placed on us, and that is pleasing. Generally, people seem to be growing a brain and acting quite responsibly during this pandemic.


I've observed it can take quite a lot of effort to change people's behaviour. Clear and consistent messaging with some penalties attached, seems to do the trick, but it can take quite some time. The best example I can think of is Random Breath Testing which was first introduced in Australia in 1976, in Victoria. In 1976 drink driving was acceptable. In 2020 it is not. In my lifetime I've witnessed this massive change in societal attitudes to what has always been a foolish and dangerous act, even before drink driving laws were codified.

In contrast to this, has been the rapid response of people to COVID-19. There was no toilet paper on the supermarket shelves for two months. Other products are still in short supply. People are not going out except to work, shop and exercise as per government instructions. We panic when someone near us coughs or sneezes. Out hands have never been cleaner. People actually practise social distancing. In the blink of an eye, society has been transformed.

And so we dance.

Yesterday it was quite crowded at Coles and I saw much less attention to social distancing. The news is of course positive for Territorians. We haven't had a new case of COVID-19 for nearly two weeks. Schools will re open for all students tomorrow and there is talk of the Northern Territory leading the way out of these strange times in which we live, by easing restrictions before any one else. From what I saw yesterday, the latest round of positive whispering has had an immediate impact on people's behaviour.

And so I watch, reminded of the words of an ancient prophet who compared people to sheep noting we have "all gone astray; each of us turned to his own way." (Isaiah 53:6)

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