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  • Writer's pictureMaitreyee Patki

'Circuit Breaker' or 'Lockdown'? What’s in a name? A lot apparently.

Behavioural insights agency, Canvas8, made an interesting point about how pandemics make visible latent social structures, making them a sampling device for social analysis (Pandemic Culture – Living Report). As someone who makes a living off the curiosity to know why people behave the way they do, it has indeed been a rather interesting time to see what responses of different countries to the pandemic says about them. Their reactions and coping mechanisms are really, a window into their cultural beliefs, values and traditions that underpin their behaviour.

Italy vs. Germany in lockdown. I am not so sure about the authenticity of this video, but you get the drift. Video credit: Reddit community

And so, when the world over, countries were mulling or entering a ‘lockdown’ and Singapore initiated what it called a ‘circuit breaker’, it of course made me curious. As part of these circuit breaker measures, residents need to stay at home, work from home and not have gatherings both in-home and outside of home. Places of entertainment are closed, as are schools and colleges and all non-essential workplaces. Restaurants, hawker centres and cafes can only offer takeaways or deliveries, no more dine-in. So basically, a lockdown, no? So then why this insistence on doggedly referring to it as a ‘circuit breaker’ in all official communications?

Semiotically, a ‘circuit breaker’ signifies a somewhat democratic approach to curbing the spread of the virus. All of us, coming together to break the circuit, slow down and eventually stop the spread. Now unlike a ‘circuit breaker’, a ‘lockdown’ has a certain power dynamic to it. It has come to mean something that is imposed top down, a unilateral decision taken by authorities in-charge rather than a democratic decision arrived at together as a community.

‘Circuit breaker’ also has a more positive ring to it. It symbolizes a proactive measure. It signifies an ‘active’ effort to ‘break the circuit’. It is an action you take against the virus. In the global scheme of things, it potentially helps Singapore come across as being better off than India or Italy that are in a complete lockdown state. A ‘lockdown’ on the other hand has come to signify a rather grim, depressing reality. A sign that there is an impending calamity waiting to unfold. A lockdown is an action against you and your movements. A state of being held back. A state of inaction (even though the inaction is itself the active solution to slowing down the pandemic).

Then there are also the behavioural implications of a ‘circuit breaker’ versus a ‘lockdown’. A ‘circuit breaker’ sounds like a community action, something we all rally towards and thereby not a ‘mandate’ in that sense. It is a minimization of all things non-essential to ‘try’ and stay at home as much as possible. The problem here is that what is essential is rather subjective, leaving a lot open to interpretation. In comparison, a ‘lockdown’ signifies a certain finality. A non-negotiable. A stricter state of law wherein essentials are well defined as literally the bare minimum essential for everyday living.

So, what’s more effective to get the desired results: essentially getting people to stay home, minimize social interactions to their household only and slow down the spread of the virus? Calling it a ‘circuit breaker’ or calling it a ‘lockdown’? The clues probably lie in what specific cultures respond to.

Singapore – and this is something that may surprise some of you – fares low on Hofstede’s Uncertainty Avoidance. This means that its people are willing to accept ambiguity. As counter-intuitive it may seem for some who know Singapore as a well-disciplined ‘fine city’, Singaporeans are actually flexible with some rules. There are so many laws around everything and so many multi-cultural sub-communities that in the larger scheme of things, some tiptoeing around the limits of what’s permissible / not, is quite common. There is a certain ‘flexibility’ around it, probably a behavioural representation of the ‘chin chai’ (anything goes) sub-culture. That said, Singaporeans very well know where to draw the line and what boundaries to not cross. This obedience however is driven by strict enforcement by authorities and works due to Singapore’s high Power Distance score (acceptance of a hierarchical distribution of power).

A circuit breaker feels closer to the ‘chin chai’ way of living. The boundaries seem somewhat subjective and residents therefore tiptoe around these. For instance, it was clear that one could not leave home to go to work but with national parks staying open, people rushed to these for hikes and trails, outdoor group play and some friends and family beach time. The boundaries were subjective. Now, every day we see the government responding to incredibly specific queries about what is and what is not allowed under the ‘circuit breaker’ way of life as residents try to navigate this new fuzzy world and determine where the final boundaries lie. The government on their part have been responding by outlining the scope of the circuit breaker measures sharply day by day and fast-tracking laws to be able to strictly enforce the measures on-ground.

When the government announced these ‘circuit breaker’ measures, it was received well by residents. For the most part things remained calm and peaceful. What if they had referred to it as a ‘lockdown’? Would it have triggered some panic among residents? But also, I wonder, would it have made residents more likely to strictly abide by the rules? Would it tap into the Singapore’s high Power Distance dynamic and thereby call for more obedience? Would the ‘lockdown’ label convey a certain finality, a clarity around dos and don’ts enabling residents to make more conscientious choices? And can a ‘lockdown’ still tap into Singapore’s collectivistic ‘kampung’ (village / community) spirit like the circuit breaker does, as how Italy did with their balcony concerts?

I am going to wait and watch to see how life under this circuit breaker unfolds and analyse (of course). But what do you think?



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