in How COVID-19 Took Over the World: Lessons for the Future, edited by Christine Loh (HKU Press, February 2023), Chapter Ten, pp. 169-194
Introduction: A key global strategy to contain the coronavirus disease 2019 known as COVID-19 has been the implementation of social distancing measures (SDMs), in particular Stayat-Home (SaH) orders. Given the epidemiological consensus at the time that social distancing significantly reduces transmission and that the ability of a country to contain the spread of infections depends on the degree to which SaH orders and other SDMs are enforced and complied with, few countries, if any, have not imposed lockdowns of sorts to some degree, in particular a range of SaH orders, placing a significant part of their population, if not all, under quarantine for various durations. To a large degree, the success or failure of these measures has depended on citizens’ willingness to change their behaviours to comply with SaH orders.
The existing literature indicates a range of factors, both subjective and objective, to explain compliance. Subjective factors include substantive support for the measures, trust in the government, political values, and obligations to obey regulations, broadly defined to include the impact of deterrence and the sense of fairness. Some studies show that civic and moral education, and the appeal to altruism or a sense of solidarity, have some short-term positive impact on compliance with SDMs; an invocation of a degree of fear is also found to have more explanatory power in motivating behaviour change. Others have pointed out that one’s political views (Democrat or Republican in the American context) have some predictive power on whether or not one will adhere to SDMs.
Compliance with SaH orders can hardly be achieved without coordinated action, effective enforcement, and adequate material and psychological support on the part of the government. In the United States, while people generally felt compelled to obey the law, supported the principle of social distancing, and were concerned with the consequences of non-compliance, ‘only a minority of Americans indicate that they always follow social distancing measures’. In Italy, public authorities struggled to deal with significant non-compliance with SaH rules. Sheth and Wright reported significant violations of the SaH order in California, concluding that relying on risk aversion or altruism would not achieve compliance. Even in Canada, where compliance was high across all provinces, there was still a substantial proportion of norm-breakers.
In order to secure adequate compliance, objective factors also need to be factored in, including people’s capacity to follow SaH orders, opportunities to violate the measures, costs and benefits of adherence, and social norms in terms of adherence, i.e., whether others around are also in compliance. A key factor is the practical capacity to adhere to SDMs—people do not follow rules that are hard, if not impossible, to follow. Effective implementation of SaH orders demands support for residents in isolation and monitoring to enforce the orders.
This chapter examines the unique role that grassroots residential social organisations in China have played in supporting and enforcing pandemic control measures. In explaining China’s performance in containing the pandemic before the sudden reverse of the restrictive policy in November 2022 after a nationwide protest COVID restrictions, commentators have attributed this to the Chinese Communist Party’s decisive move to lock down cities at a high social and economic cost and to the capacity both to mobilise human and material resources to build hospitals to isolate those infected with the virus, and to send medics and support to the most infected cities to treat patients. Another feature that has characterised the Chinese strategy and is receiving increasing attention is the broad societal participation and the ability of residential communities to enforce SDMs and, in particular, SaH orders, enabling residents to respond to the pandemic and to comply with pandemic control measures with resources and confidence. In what was dubbed by the Party as the people’s war against the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese urban communities showcased the effectiveness of the unique governance style in inducing compliance under certain political conditions. What makes Chinese urbanites more willing to participate in pandemic control enforcement and more compliant with SaH orders? And when will the willingness to comply and participate be withdrawn?