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22 July, 2022

While living with Covid is getting (somewhat) easier, reminders of those worrying times early in the pandemic still linger – and one manifestation of this is unnecessary sanitising.

An article published by The Atlantic criticises  “hygiene theatre” – the “practice of extreme washing to give off the feeling of improved safety” – that is still visible in many companies and public places today. You may wonder what’s wrong with keeping things clean? While cleanliness is great, hygiene theatre is a problem when it falsely reassures people that an environment is safe without actually lowering the risks.

We have learnt a lot about Covid-19, and now know that the risk of contracting COVID-19 from a surface is less than one in 10,000. We now know it is usually transmitted through infected droplets in the air, and so the best way to reduce infections is through better ventilation and mask-wearing.

So why do restaurants and shops still boast about their level of cleanliness and how recently a surface was disinfected? Hygiene theatre replaces more effective measure such as ventilation and filtration because those measures are invisible, not to mention often more expensive. Restaurants and businesses wanting to demonstrate their concern for the safety of their staff and customers, use hygiene theatre to create a false sense of safety without spending money on measure that would be effective in preventing the spread.

And this is true in other areas too. We are more likely to focus on saying no to plastic straws than moving our pensions to funds with a higher ESG rating – one is easy, visible and immediate, and the other is expensive, time consuming and not present in our day to day lives. Big problems need big solutions, not easy fixes, and as we learn more about a problem we need to learn to adapt our responses and take on the big systemic challenges. The longest journey starts with a single step, but pretty quickly, the steps need to get bigger.

By Ash Werner

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