Why people comply with COVID-19 social distancing restrictions: Self-interest or duty?

Published date01 December 2020
DOI10.1177/0004865820954484
Date01 December 2020
Article
Why people comply with
COVID-19 social distancing
restrictions: Self-interest
or duty?
Kristina Murphy , Harley Williamson,
Elise Sargeant and Molly McCarthy
Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University, Brisbane,
Australia
Abstract
On 11 March 2020 the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak
(COVID-19) a global pandemic. At the time of writing, over 16 million cases of COVID-19
had been confirmed worldwide, and more than 650,000 people had died from the virus.
A priority amongst governments globally is limiting the spread of the virus. In Australia, this
response included mandatory ‘lockdown’ restrictions which limited citizens’ freedom of
movement. This article uses survey data from 1595 Australians to examine compliance
with COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in the early stages of the pandemic. Results revealed
that a substantial number of Australians did not comply fully with the measures. Further,
while self-interest and health concerns motivated compliance, normative concerns regarding
duty to support the authorities dominated compliance decisions. The findings’ implications
for both compliance research and for authorities wanting to nurture voluntary compliance
with public health orders are discussed.
Keywords
Compliance, COVID-19, deterrence, duty, health risk, restrictions, social distancing, trust in
authority
Date received: 25 May 2020; accepted: 5 August 2020
Corresponding author:
Kristina Murphy, Griffith University, 176 Messines Ridge Rd, Mt Gravatt, Brisbane, Queensland 4122, Australia.
Email: t.murphy@griffith.edu.au
Australian & New Zealand Journal of
Criminology
2020, Vol. 53(4) 477–496
!The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/0004865820954484
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Introduction
Australia’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported on 26 January 2020. In the
ensuing weeks, Australia’s cases rapidly increased and authorities moved to contain the
outbreak. On 15 March, acting on the advice of Australia’s Chief Medical Officer,
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a series of immediate, mandatory restric-
tions. The restrictions, mostly implemented and enforced by state and territory govern-
ments, limited public gatherings and freedom of movement. Border restrictions were
introduced, and many businesses, schools and universities closed. Only four reasons for
leaving one’s house were allowable: travelling to and from medical appointments or
work, shopping for ‘essential’ supplies, and exercise. People were also forbidden from
socialising with friends or family. ‘Social distancing’ became a new household term, and
people were directed to keep physical distance from others if they had to leave the house.
Naturally, the introduction of mandatory restrictions created enhanced enforcement.
Police were granted powers to issue on-the-spot fines of AUD$1600 to those caught
leaving their home without a legitimate excuse. Depending upon violation severity, fines
could exceed AUD$10,000. Police were also granted powers to arrest non-compliant
individuals, and courts were given powers to imprison non-compliers for up to six
months.
As lockdown restrictions continued into April and May, signs emerged that
Australians had become restless in social isolation and had become complacent in abid-
ing by restrictions. Thousands of infringement notices were issued to those flouting
lockdown restrictions. For example, by 3 May, Queensland Police had issued 1664
fines totalling more than $2 million (Cartwright, 2020), and by 21 May, Victoria
Police had issued more than 5719 fines totalling more than $9.4 million (Zagon,
2020). On May 10, anti-lockdown protests occurred in Melbourne, resulting in 10
arrests.
Australia had early success in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak (approx. 7000
confirmed cases and 100 deaths at the end of the lockdown period). Part of this early
success was due to the willingness of many Australians to comply with lockdown
restrictions. However, ensuring continued and widespread public support for, and com-
pliance with, restrictions that limit personal liberties is a tenuous game. In a country
where citizens expect freedom of movement, long-term restrictions can become increas-
ingly difficult for authorities to maintain.
Our article examines Australians’ compliance with the COVID-19 lockdown restric-
tions in the early stage of the pandemic, and explores the factors that motivated com-
pliance behaviour. The article draws on survey data from 1595 Australians five weeks
after lockdown restrictions began. Before presenting the findings, we review the crimi-
nology and public health literature, identifying factors that motivate peoples’ willingness
to comply with laws and to adopt protective health behaviours during pandemics.
Why do people comply with laws?: A criminology perspective
Criminological research shows that compliance is motivated by instrumental and
normative concerns. Instrumental models of compliance suggest that people are rational
self-interested actors who act to maximise personal benefits and minimise personal
478 Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology 53(4)

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