Covid Strategies: Mobilizing peers, and bystanders, and bystanders of bystanders

By Mary Rowe

Hello IOA,

I have been studying how peers and bystanders are being encouraged to support community values with respect to COVID. I continue to study peers and bystanders because I have come to believe that peers and bystanders are the principal constraints on unacceptable behavior in our society. (And I believe that this is especially true in constraining the unacceptable behavior of people who have a lot of power in any context.) 

OOs often receive vital information from bystanders (and the bystanders of bystanders) and are engaged in systems change. 

I am collecting useful ideas, as well as I can, every week, from ombuds and former students around the world. The points below are just brief notes; please feel free to ignore this, if every point is so yesterday.

Although, if your organization is ahead of the game….please send me other points to add to the list, you may use the comment box to build on this list as well.  (I know that OOs and all our organizational Values Leadership groups may be doing lots more than I have collected.)

But, after this last month, I wondered if my dinky, un-finished and humble list might be of any use?

These notes slant a bit towards academe but ideas are coming from all sectors. I include some real examples. 

In part this list is also based on my earlier research that showed that, overwhelmingly, perceived danger is the strongest motivator for responsible bystander action and for bystanders of bystanders.



Mobilizing peers, and bystanders, and bystanders of bystanders on COVID, in every cohort in the organization

Perceived danger to oneself or close friends/family or one’s ethnic group, tribe, caste, etc.

  • keep near-daily communicating about (various, different) bad cases with young adults: one brief mention in every communication; also using bad-case examples relevant to each cohort such as faculty and managers…. And, as appropriate, emphasizing that COVID defenses are part of anti-racism, anti-classism, and supportive of essential workers and those who are the caretakers in society
  • keep near-daily communicating about the perceived transmission by asymptomatic carriers, especially to vulnerable persons, whose vulnerability, in turn, may not be obvious
  • remind those who are frequently tested and those who have recovered not to develop a false sense of security, and to continue scrupulous and visible COVID defenses
  • keep near-daily communicating about the fact that fever is just one indicator; one's normal temperature cannot be relied on to indicate health
  • add weekly communications about long-term sequelae of COVID
  • add weekly communications about avoiding twin epidemics in fall and winter, and emphasizing the possibility that masks, attestations, hand-washing and distancing may reduce other sources of illness for self and affines
  • make matter-of-factly clear that constant testing and some tracing—and community anger—may expose the identity of anyone who proves to transmit the virus to others


Use what we know about sources of influence, e.g. Cialdini, behavioral economics etc

  • emphasize the importance of demonstrating true leadership amongst one's peers and specifically the importance of leadership that is based on science and a deep knowledge about staying safe and well
  • thoughtfully mobilize the best-liked peers in every relevant cohort to be leaders who: a) provide intangible rewards (e.g. affirmations and thanks) to those who are helping the cause by wearing masks, and who: b) are role-models in thanking other people  that nudge them: e.g. a top faculty member who thanks the student who nudges them to wear a mask, and who: c) are active in keeping up other peoples’ spirits in these down times
  • emphasize the scarcity of in-person education if we have to shut down and go completely on-line, and the "added value and prestige from my education here, if my school turns out to be one of the few that “makes it” around the country and around the world"
  • emphasize the importance of “being a good and loyal friend” to one’s classmates, faculty and staff—how will I feel, if I test positive, and turn out to be the one that may have caused a death or life-time illness, or the loss of a public activity?
  • emphasize the commitment we already all have made, that all our friends and family have made, and our disciplined consistency throughout a great, historical challenge
  • emphasize the value and likability and status of peers who take care of others—and the importance of being worthy of the sacrifices that many have made and are making for my being here, and……
  • emphasize the importance of non-punitive leadership, which can include cheerful role-modeling, cheerful and upbeat nudging, and, especially, cheerfully supporting others who are masking, attesting, hand-washing and distancing if they are being teased or ridiculed
  • communicate (somehow… well as possible) without sounding preachy, judgmental and pompous


Competition, prizes etc

  • try to build considerable hoopla, a college or University AWARD, ice cream once a week after class for each week with no virus positives in the whole school, other prizes and incentives to be invented by students; try to invent delightful and unexpected awards that keep popping up
  • consider a competition amongst pods or other groups for those who can get through the semester without a positive test
  • consider a few sizable awards at the end of semester for those voted by their peers to have done the most to protect and lead their class through COVID, with especial mention of class leaders who have raised spirits at a time of stress.
  • Consider a few sizable School awards: for excellent videos or posters made by a pod about safety and wellness in the time of COVID, the best student papers about the effects of COVID or the management of COVID in any milieu that matters to them (e.g. Kindergarten, or my home in country X, or for my ethnic group), for “the best use of humor” in marketing safety and wellness, for the best paper about “how to deal with managers and supervisors in my agency/company/department that believe COVID is a hoax”


Emphasizing academic/institutional research and/or professional creativity about COVID

  • provide resources/mentorship referrals for any students/staff who wish to study or write about any aspect of COVID, or produce relevant art in any domain of the arts about COVID, or join in the research of the School about managing COVID, etc. 
  • emphasize in this arena the importance of external colleagues with whom any member of the community may wish to collaborate, building on diverse talents (some current examples include collecting poems and haiku, encouraging serious diaries, scientists who are working with others on some creative idea like the importance of dogs who can sniff-recognize COVID, the distribution of blood types by country related to COVID, measuring the importance of masking at concerts or games)
  • emphasize research and creativity linking the damages of COVID to anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-sexism, climate control, income inequality, wealth inequality, fostering democracy, immigration and other major challenges and concerns
  • track every measure that works in helping people help themselves and their community with COVID
  • study bystander behavior; every organization now has an interest in tracking what is working well; (we need to know more about bystanders who help to stop unacceptable behavior and also bystanders who help to raise peoples' spirits and provide hope.)


Emphasizing anonymous support available to everyone

  • provide constant communications about any risk-free resources available to support the bystander, bystander of a bystander, peer—or other witness including a family member or event host—who wants to give information completely off the record or seek support off the record in dealing with someone perceived to be missing the mark in citizenship (examples include religious counsellors and chaplains, EAP and other health care practitioners, ombuds, designated Respectful Workplace Advisors). These resources must be part of a systems approach and must be very well informed about all the formal resources, policies and practices of the organization
  • if possible have very diverse risk-free resources available; diversity, accessibility and credibility really matter for zero-barrier resources.
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