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Unconscious bias – Spare a thought for healthcare and frontline workers

“The best way to prevent and slow down transmission of COVID is to protect yourself and others from infection by staying at least 1 meter apart from others, wearing a properly fitted mask, and washing your hands or using an alcohol-based rub frequently. Get vaccinated when it’s your turn and follow local guidance.

It is important to practice respiratory etiquette, for example, by coughing into a flexed elbow, and to stay home and self-isolate until you recover if you feel unwell.” (

The instructions for slowdown of transmission and prevention of COVID-19 infection are clearly stated above. Sounds cliché! Over the last two years, this has been told, heard, and read time and again.

If you are wondering, why this is being written now, here is my point – Did many worry about healthcare workers (HCW) and front line workers (FLW) and their families between the first and the second wave, where norms were eased for public movement, businesses, and nurturing a wounded economy? It was omnipresent on media on how public were not following the three basic norms – social distancing, use of masks, and hand sanitization. Breach of laid down protocols became the order. Come the second wave, again a heightened sense of responsibility was displayed, which only lasted as long as the government authorities policed the public. As norms were eased, a similar pattern is being observed.

Unconscious bias – a phenomenon that could probably explain this.

Because of the unconscious nature of such bias, we are mostly unaware that we even have them. (Blind spot!!). We interpret happenings basis our unconscious biases and the resulting responses – socially normal/accepted by our family, friends, and professional colleagues – unaware that they may harm others.

Our current approach assumes people can change if they understand the good, rational reasons being stated as reasons for the prospective change. Being prescriptive, without getting to the root cause, the bias will not usher in the change. The beliefs are so in-built and embedded that any relaxation in policing would lead us back there, effortlessly.

Changing core biases permanently is not a behavior change issue that could get addressed by awareness/education; it is a problem that must be resolved within the system that created it. The system is a pool of elements consisting of our norms, culture, history, beliefs, dreams, etc., which we hold largely unconsciously and become the foundation of who we are. All systems seek stability or a balance between systems that define us; thus, a prescription for change only threatens the stability and thus is never adopted.

We all know it is not possible to push change from the outside; each individual must find a way to evaluate and reconsider their own biases to make any necessary corrections that only they can make for themselves.

Change-management principles need to be applied, time be given, and a successful pilot with chosen champions is the way forward. Offering any sort of advice for a proposed change, before the system knows who, why, where, what, when, and how will only encourage more resistance.

Could we teach the system to get rid of its unconscious bias? How long would it take? Who are the stakeholders? How do we usher in the change? Who will be the pilot champions? Does the government and the population have channels to obtain such information and provide feedback? Do people have forums to discover their unconscious bias? Phew, is an arduous task!

Resolving bias is not easy. Its ingrained…we need our brain to change…after all, new neural pathways are not formed overnight!

Until such time, we cannot expect general public to worry specifically for HCW/FLW and their families when they venture out in search of livelihood, driven by their unconscious bias, and unconsciously breaking all norms of safety during this pandemic, knowing very well that these HCW/FLW and their families would care for them directly and indirectly, if they ever fall prey to the virus.