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April 28, 2020

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Good habits more than cures for epidemic

When you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose.

This is not mere moral suasion. It’s part of a new regulation Beijing passed last Friday to promote civic virtues. The regulation, which also requires people to refrain from eating at the city’s subway or light-rail carriages, takes effect on June 1.

The regulation further says that one should wear a mask if he or she has an influenza or other infectious respiratory diseases. It allows all units or individuals to dissuade or stop anyone from deviating from civic manners as stipulated. Legally taken photos, videos or recordings can be provided to law enforcement departments for reference.

While poor social behaviors, such as coughing or sneezing to the faces of others, spitting in public places, or leaving pet feces uncleared, are hard to disappear any time soon, such a regulation is long overdue.

As we continue to fight COVID-19, it comes at a time when we all the more need to rectify our less-than-desirable behaviors that serve no good.

I’ve long been annoyed by some people’s bad habits. One of my younger colleagues found that, even in the early days of quarantine to curb the coronavirus, some car drivers would still spit into the street wantonly.

When I walked in our neighborhood in the past few days, I saw some people spitting or sneezing loudly in the open — as if they had forgotten that the novel coronavirus could spread via airborne particles.

Old habits

The epidemic has taught us to observe social distancing, and many people have learnt and practiced it well. However, many other old habits die hard. Oftentimes it’s because we fail to give these behaviors a serious thought.

We do right only when we think right. Here an advice from Cassie Kozyrkov may help us become more empathetic.

As the head of decision intelligence at Google, she wrote in a recent article that people can learn to get rid of irrational behaviors — uncivil behaviors are certainly irrational — by asking themselves some important questions.

“Now is as good a time as ever to have a grown-up moment and face unpalatable general questions like ‘Under what circumstances, if ever, am I willing to put a stranger’s life at risk? How much risk?’” she wrote. “Once you’ve figured out what you consider to be right and wrong, you’ll have a better perspective from which to make judgments. For example, is the freedom to eat out in a restaurant more important than protecting the health of your family?”

By the same token, we can ask ourselves: “Is the freedom to cough, spit or sneeze more important than protecting the health of your neighbors?”

As Kozyrkov noted, people often suffer from two cognitive fallacies — confirmation bias (a tendency to believe only information that substantiates your existing beliefs) and ambiguity aversion (a preference for known risks over unknown risks). These fallacies can entice people to make uninformed assumptions about their behaviors and then gather data that fit those views.

For instance, before the epidemic, coughing or sneezing without wearing a mask would hardly be seen as highly risky to the health of others nearby. But this time is different.

Beijing’s latest civic virtues regulation is a timely call for all of us to reflect on our public behaviors, particularly in light of the time-honored precepts and teachings that are central to our culture.

If you read the regulation more carefully, you will find that it’s an immediate response to the need of epidemic prevention and a long-term effort to promote a communal spirit. Aside from admonishing people to cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, the regulation also targets noise pollution and spitting or dumping trash at will, among other things.

Beijing’s new regulation is not just about punishment. By encouraging and empowering everyone to say no to uncivil manners, the capital city has in effect launched a public education campaign to nudge citizens to do good.

It requires citizens to abide by rules, but more importantly, it prods people to discover their good conscience, the very source from which good deeds derive.


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