Half of people in Belgium no longer limit their social contacts to help prevent coronavirus infections despite calls from health experts and the government to do so, a recent study found.
The longitudinal research conducted by health psychologist Olivier Luminet (UCLouvain) looked at the four central health measures to reduce infections and how they were followed in April (when infections were peaking), June (a more favourable coronavirus situation) and November (fourth wave) 2021. Depending on the epidemiological situation, these were either encouraged or imposed by the government.
The four principal measures are:
- Washing hands
- Wearing a face mask
- Maintaining a 1.5m social distance
- Limiting contacts
Luminet found that of the four measures, people are currently less likely to limit their social contacts or follow social distancing rules than wearing a face mask and washing hands.
‘This probably reflects the natural need for individuals to socialise, both in real and face-to-face interaction, as well as changes to rules for social situations,’ the study stated.
Compliance with the measure to restrict social contacts has significantly decreased, going from 80% of respondents following this measure in April to 61% in June and 56% at the end of November/beginning of December, Luminet told Le Soir.
Adhering to physical distancing and social measures was already decreasing earlier this year, but this was mostly in response to the epidemiological situation improving. The study found that now, during the fourth wave, there is a ‘significant’ discrepancy between the severity of the epidemic and compliance with health measures.
But the report did find that in general, the higher the perception of risk, the more careful people are. This would explain why young people (aged 18 to 35) are less likely to comply than other age groups, and why unvaccinated people, who may tend to underestimate the risk of Covid-19 infections, are also less compliant than vaccinated people. The study found that the gaps between these groups have grown over time.
Compliance with rules and recommendations was also directly linked to social influences from surrounding groups: ‘People who say they are not influenced by their environment are more likely to follow the measures.’ By contrast, if lots of people in a group are not observing the recommendations, individuals are less likely to do so.
For wearing masks, social distancing, and limiting contacts, no significant differences between genders were registered. However, women reported washing their hands more frequently than men.
Better and more regular campaigning needed
According to the report, the results highlight the need for ‘regular public health campaigns to emphasise the importance of health measures, particularly at times when the pandemic becomes more severe,” such as at the start of autumn.
In the past month, Belgium’s Consultative Committee has met three times to update or strengthen measures. For Erika Vlieghe, infectious disease expert and chair of the GEMS expert group, this makes the situation too unpredictable. “That gets on everyone’s nerves, both those who make the decisions and those who live with them.”
On Monday it was announced that a “coronavirus barometer” based on objective parameters (such as hospital admissions, ICU occupation) could be a transparent way of ensuring that everyone understands when and why new measures are taken. This will be discussed at the next Consultative Committee in the week of 20 December.