Given what we know about human behavior, there are ways we can help ourselves and those around us to adopt these behaviors:
Wash your hands more often for at least 20 seconds
Reminders in relevant places have been shown to increase hand washing. We can start by putting signs on the refrigerator door or at the bathroom exit asking “Did you wash your hands well?”
We also know that we have a tendency to wash our hands less when we think they are not watching us. We can create a sense of vigilance by asking others if they have already washed their hands.
Facilitating access is also very important – soap or antibacterial must be available. Ideally the antibacterial should be visible where it is most convenient, for example next to the elevator or in waiting rooms.
Perhaps the most effective is to create habits around hand washing. A common recommendation is to sing Happy Birthday twice during the wash (20 seconds).
Avoid touching your face, especially nose, eyes, and mouth
Many times we touch our faces in reaction because, for example, it itches us. In such cases, to calm the urge it may be more effective to introduce surrogate behavior. For example, scratching your face with the back of your wrist or a handkerchief.
Another option is to create barriers that help us reduce the frequency with which we touch our faces. For example, put your hands in your pockets, cross your arms, carry something to play with your fingers. People with long hair can also tie it up to avoid the need to touch their face.
Social feedback can help too – asking our friends and family to let us know when they see us touching our faces.
Thinking of “if… then…” plans can be an effective option for creating new habits. For example, “if I look at the cell phone, then I put my other hand in my pocket.”
We can also create new rules on how to cough and sneeze properly, for example into the elbow instead of the hand, and post reminder pictures in congregation sites, for example on public transportation.
Social distancing and self-reclusion
These measures at the aggregate level have been shown to be effective in controlling the transmission of influenza and COVID 19. And although social distancing measures need a boost at different levels, such as employers and governments, at the individual level we can also take actions that help reduce exposure to the virus:
The best thing we can do to avoid infecting others is to stay home. If required by the authorities in your country, and in any case if you suspect that you may be infected or have symptoms, it is essential to self-exclude. It is important to have a concrete plan about who to contact, what actions to take if you require medical attention, and when. The protocol in many countries suggests staying home unless a serious situation arises.
In self-seclusion it is also important to take care of our mental health. It can help to create a routine with a defined schedule, arrange with a colleague or friend to make a daily social call, or identify a supportive social network that you can activate like your neighbors (for example, initiatives like Nextdoor) or close family members.
Create simple rules that help create distance. For example, in the office, leave a seat in the middle of colleagues at the desk and lunch. In the lines, be sure to stand two arms from the person in front of you.
We can also introduce new greetings that eliminate physical contact. For example, the already viralized Wuhan Shake, a Namaste-style greeting or wave of the hand.
When applying any of these recommendations, also bear in mind that human beings have a risk thermostat, preventive measures in an area make us feel that we are “behaving well”, and we feel we are licensed to take more risks in another area. For example, when using antibacterial we may neglect more when we touch our face. We have to be vigilant all the time, making a constant conscious effort, in order to protect our own, the most vulnerable. We can thus be the first line of battle that helps health systems win the war against this virus.