A Behavioural Guide to Covid-19

Common Thread
10 min readMar 27, 2020
Social Distancing Fail.

Watching the Covid-19 pandemic unfold has turned all of us into recipients of the very things Common Thread usually advise others about: public health policy, outbreak response, risk communication, and behavioural strategies. Covid-19 has democratised disease — and people — perhaps more than any other experience in our lifetimes.

By Mike Coleman and Sherine Guirguis, Co-Directors of Common Thread: Putting people at the centre of public health.

These past few weeks have certainly been the most effective exercise in empathy-building we’ve ever been a part of.

As professionals and as citizens, it’s been a fascinating, at-times scary, and mercurial couple of weeks. We’ve seen the impact of fact vs fear-based communication, and watched the ways in which we — and those around us — respond. We’ve seen misinformation and myths come into our homes and inboxes every day and have had to decipher fact from fiction, at times with great difficulty. We’ve confronted our own trust in Government and International Organisations, and questioned their ability to make decisions on our behalf — vacillating between wanting them to be more forceful and nudgy, and wanting more autonomy on the length of our daily walks.

We realise these are strange, scary times, and people are acting scared and strange.

A man in Spain gives a rooftop aerobics class to his neighbours who are isolating during COVID-19
An aerobics instructor gives his neighbours a free class from a Spanish rooftop.

If you need a break from rooftop aerobics, operatic arias, and your kids (let’s be real), we’ve pulled together a few of our very favourite resources to help you better understand the most important resource we have to fight this pandemic: people and their behaviour.

Before the world went on lockdown, Common Thread was gearing up for an exciting year. Our organisation began expanding and we are increasing our strength in public health, anthropology and behavioural science.

We’re also working with wonderful new clients like PATH to harness the power of HCD (Human Centred Design) for frontline health workers, and in new countries like Ethiopia and Namibia to understand barriers to civil registration, including amongst refugees. We’ve been filming in rural Balochistan, in Pakistan, to better understand journeys to health, and have just finished delivering a five session HCD workshop in Zambia and an outbreak communication course with NYU — both 100% virtually.

This pandemic may be the single largest behaviour change effort in history.

We’re all doing things differently and at Common Thread we are trying to be mindful of what we can learn from all this. Our (unfortunately!) prescient interview with Dr Jonathan Quick, author of The End of Epidemics in our last Medium piece still rings hauntingly in our ears: the last century is riddled with cycles of public health panic, followed quickly by complacency (repeat — rinse — repeat). Fingers crossed things are different this time.

So here are a few of our favourite resources, and you can also check out our Field Notes page on our website, Twitter and Instagram for more updates.

Stay safe and stay healthy, friends.

Sherine and Mike

The Stories We Can’t Stop Talking About…

Illustration of COVID-19, created by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Who Let the Virus Out?

If you’re still not clear how a few cases of Coronavirus managed to explode into a full blown Pandemic, despite draconian social restrictions that are the envy of all Western Democracies, watch this infographic.

Visitors to a Florida beach during Spring Break — were mapped by mobile phone data by Tectonix after they left — showing just how important ‘Social Distancing’ really is.

Are we too “Loose” in the West?

First of all, get your minds out of the gutter. “Loose”, in a Covid-19 context, refers more to your fondness of democratic norms than anything else. The differences between individualistic and collective cultures on behaviour has long been a focus of study for behavioural scientists, particularly as it impacts behaviours like immunisation. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, this same phenomenon — and where you stand on the cultural spectrum of looseness — could mean the difference between being able to flatten the curve, or not.

Hand Sanitizer, Masks, and….Toilet Paper?

If you’re looking for a nerdy analysis of why every shopping cart you saw last week was overflowing with toilet paper, there’s a perfectly (ir)rational explanation: “There are at least three factors driving our response — scarcity, social proof, and regaining a sense of control.”Even behavioural scientists themselves couldn’t resist the social pressure to stock up.

The Research We’re Curious About…

Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

Behavioural Sightings at the World Health Organization

The World Health Organization wants to know what people know and think about COVID-19. This unprecedented inquiry into human behaviour led by the world’s largest organization of doctors and epidemiologists is like a coming out party for the newly established Behavioural Insights Unit at WHO/Europe. They’ve made their research tool free and accessible to everyone, and are also offering support to countries who want to use it. You can download the tool and find out more about it here.

Don’t Test Me

How quickly the Coronavirus can be halted is now almost entirely dependent on human behaviour. A new paper, which scoured 120 research articles in about a week highlights three factors that would make altruistic behaviour more likely: clear communication, feeling a sense of community and some form of punishment — social disapproval, for example — for those who break the rules.You may recognize some of them already being rolled out at a press-conference near you.

Cough this way, please

Your coughing could help epidemiologists better understand the distribution pattern and transmission potential of viral respiratory outbreaks in crowds. University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers have created an artificial intelligence device called FluSense which can analyze audio of people coughing in public places and turn it into actionable data. With the help of a relatively cheap microphone and thermal imaging data set up in a public area, FluSense can’t tell you if you’re sick as an individual, but it might be able to tell city administrators when a particular neighborhood is about to have an outbreak.

Sharing is caring

Collaboration amongst social scientists has arguably never been more important. This global list of social science research tracks new studies planned and ongoing about COVID 19. It includes published findings, pre-prints, projects underway, and those at proposal stage. If you want to collaborate with a group of social researchers, avoid duplication, or identify a critical gap you can fill, download the shared spreadsheet. Please share widely amongst your networks.

Lessons from the Behavioural and Social Sciences — now and later

This paper, hot off the press this week, was written by 36 authors from around the world and highlights work on navigating threats, social and cultural factors, science communication, moral decision-making, leadership, and stress and coping that is relevant to pandemics. Perhaps more importantly it highlights gaps that need to be urgently filled and the value of these lessons long-term: “Whether policy makers are trying to increase vaccination rates or reduce the harm of climate change, they will be fundamentally facing many of the same issues.”

The Lessons that are Sticking with Us

“I told you so” — said Bill Gates Never

Remember when Bill Gates told us we weren’t prepared for the next pandemic…..FIVE YEARS AGO? His TED Talk from 2015 feels like an eerie prediction into the future. Except it was based on science and data, so really it just feels like everyone ignored the data. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation tried once again last year. They,organized a pandemic simulation exercise at the World Economic Forum in October 2019 — just 3 months before Covid-19 took off in China. The key takeaway- we’re not ready. Anyone surprised?

Bill Gates during his TED Talk in 2015 — eerily predicting the future.

Luckily for us, Bill Gates isn’t the “I told you so” type. Instead, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working with the World Economic Forum to set up a Covid-Action platform among governments, international organisations and the business community to focus on three priorities.

Hopefully the world will listen more closely this time.

Visual graphs are worth a thousand words

We know most people have their favorite data tracker for the outbreak (this is ours).

More than ever, we’re seeing how important it is to provide visuals and graphics to help people interpret numbers and science.

What started out as an exercise in counting numbers is now a plotting exercise reminiscent of your high school algebra class. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t really know how to read graphs, and this innumeracy can lead to misinformation and misguided decision making.

If you’re graph literate, you can track how your country is flattening their curve with this nifty time series graph from Visual Capitalist.


Knowing the impact of pledges on behavioural follow-through, a team of behavioural scientists launched the #standagainstcorona pledge . It’s a public commitment to carry out four life-saving behaviours. We took the pledge and so should you! Interested in the science behind the pledge? Check it out here.

Kids need to be entertained

Who knew? There’s no shortage of lists circulating amongst desperate parents trying to keep their kids entertained, mildly stimulated, and away from their Zoom cameras. This is one of the best lists we’ve come across, put together by a mom and former educator, and crowd-sourced by other parents around the world. It includes live virtual classes for all ages, museum tours, puppet shows, toddler concerts, art, magic classes and more. You’re welcome.

What’s distracting us from our work…

Note: This list is really, really long. Are we the only ones finding it hard to focus?!

The groceries no one wants to panic-buy

Wondering what’ll still be left on the shelves for your midnight grocery run? Chocolate hummus, chick-pea pasta, Dasani water (weird), and all the vegan food you could hope for are a good bet. These groceries are getting no love amidst the shopocalypse.

Dr. BJ Fogg is listening

Life looks pretty different now for most of us. If you’re taking a “one day at a time” approach, or frankly a “one hour at a time” approach, Dr. BJ Fogg has your back. Inspired by his book “Tiny Habits”, he and his colleagues offer daily Covid coaching sessions — or “tiny tips” as he calls them — for things like how to remain calm with kids, tools for seniors, and building healthy habits while working from home.

‘I’m no epidemiologist, but…’

If you’re tired of giving advice about COVID-19 that starts with that phrase, just stop right there. Don’t say another word. Shhh! Shush. Stop. Take this course from LHSTM first.

TED Connects with Bill Gates, Seth Berkeley and other smart people

This free, live, daily conversation series brings you real-time insights from some of the world’s leading experts on public health systems, vaccines, mental health, and human behaviour. It’s like having a private Zoom session with a celebrity. Insider tip: we logged in with Bill Gates this week and were way too excited to get a glimpse into his home office. Also exciting on the same scale, he was reassuringly optimistic about our prospects for beating Covid-19.

This Podcast Will Kill You

It won’t really kill you, unless you walk into traffic with your headphones on, but it covers so many things that can. Normally, each episode tackles a different disease, from its history, to its biology, and finally, how scared you need to be. Now, disease ecologists and epidemiologists Erin Welsh and Erin Allmann Updyke have created six chapters (and counting) dedicated to everything Covid, from the anatomy of the disease, to potential vaccines, to how to take care of your mental health.

Dr. Tedros on WhatsApp

OK, it’s not really Dr. Tedros personally on your WhatsApp feed, but it’s the next best thing. Text “hi” to +41 79 893 18 92 and get the latest numbers from WHO, information on how to protect yourself, frequently asked questions answered, mythbusters, travel advice, and more.

Behavioural Updates to Covid-19

For constant updates and links to the behavioural side of coronavirus check out this selection of articles and links the Behavioural Scientist collates and updates daily. It’s kind of like the Stitch, but more predictable and slightly more ambitious (read: impressive).

The Things We’re Laughing About

We’re all looking for ways to remove ourselves from our phones detailing new restrictions, and mounting case counts. Here are just a few of our favourite escapes. Please send us yours on Twitter (@gocommonthread) or hello@gocommonthread.com

Italian Mayors losing it over lockdown violators

Nothing can prepare you for this. It’s the best. Love to all our Italian brothers and sisters.❤️

When politicians show their funny side

If ye dinnae understand this, ye dinnae ken Scottish!

Toothpick prototype

No step is too small, no invention too basic, to halt Covid-19. This brilliant idea had a lot of harsh critics, but we still love it.

Behind every successful woman is a man without pants (sure to be our most popular link)

M-m-m-my Corona

Finally having too much time on your hands, a love of 80s music and semi-professional audio equipment pays off!

And finally, if you’re concerned you may have inadvertently stock-piled, this Coronavirus Poop Calculator here can show you how much poop you need to produce before you run out of stock.

This Medium piece was produced while…

Mike was keeping fit thanks to this video from a 75-year-old in Cork, Ireland, while holding family dance parties to newly-discovered Zambian music.

Sherine was earning a PhD in toddler arts and crafts, and resorting to this by evening.

If you’re interested in insights from the fields of global health, behavioural science and designing for change, check out Common Thread’s Newsletter, The Stitch, or find out more about what we do at: www.gocommonthread.com

P.S. — The Things Our Readers Are Suggesting

Thanks to those of you who’ve reached out to us with your own useful links and apps to help us with our behaviour…here’s one from the team at Am Mindfulness…keep them coming :)

Am Mindfulness is free for the duration of the outbreak to help with anxiety and depression induced by self-isolation, uncertainty and loneliness. Thanks for reaching out