Unusual breaches of Covid-19 restrictions around the world

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – One man left the house after an argument with his wife and walked 450km to cool off, breaching Italy’s national curfew.

Another man wandered outside his quarantine room in Taiwan for eight seconds and caught the attention of the authorities.

Still another drove 30km for a butter chicken curry during a strict lockdown and was apprehended by Australian police.

All those actions ended up costing them thousands of dollars in penalties.

During the global pandemic, with entire cities locked down, travel heavily restricted and isolation fatigue setting in, thousands of people have been caught, fined or jailed for breaching coronavirus restrictions that have made once normal activities taboo.

Some have intentionally broken the rules to make a political statement. Others have claimed they are immune to the disease and from the consequences of breaking those restrictions. Others have simply blundered into breaches because they apparently did not understand the rules or were acting in a moment of desperation.

“Everyone is operating in a crazy world where our normal, rational decision-making goes out the window,” said professor of economics Robert Hoffmann from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. “A pandemic is a perfect storm.”

Here are a few unusual cases.

Eight seconds + six strides = hefty fine

In the port city of Kaohsiung, in the south of Taiwan, a migrant worker from the Philippines was caught on surveillance cameras briefly stepping into the corridor of a hotel while he was under quarantine last month.

The unidentified man wanted to leave something outside the door of a friend, who was quarantining at the same hotel, according to the Central News Agency, the official Taiwanese news agency, citing the health department.

In a video clip that circulated online, the man, wearing shorts and flip-flops, could be seen taking six lumbering strides between his room and that of his neighbour, before turning around.

The breach cost him US$3,550 (S$4,750).

His behaviour, economists say, shows a kind of “optimism bias” – human beings tend to underestimate their chances of getting into trouble.

In the past month, nine foreign workers in Taiwan were caught breaking the rules, local news outlets reported, citing government data.

Taiwan has been lauded for its successful response to the coronavirus, an effort led by public health researcher Chen Chien-jen, who until May was Taiwan’s vice-president.

In recent weeks, however, the island has had a surge in cases, largely imported from Indonesia, prompting it to temporarily bar some migrant workers from entering and crack down on those in quarantine.

While punitive measures such as fines act as deterrents, there is a limit to their effectiveness, economists say. Winning cooperation, they added, is a far better defence.

A long (long) way from home

After a heated argument with his wife, a man in Como, in Italy’s north, stepped outside his house for some air last month. Authorities found him a week later – after he had walked 450km south to the coastal town of Fano, breaching a national curfew.

They fined him €400 (S$650).

The unidentified man, 48, had walked about 65km per day, according to local news reports. Police confirmed his story after contacting the authorities in Como, where the man’s wife had reported him missing. He told the authorities that he was feeling a little weary but had been given food and water by strangers along the way.

Italians on social media dubbed the man “Forrest Gump”, after the Tom Hanks character in the 1994 film who runs thousands of miles to clear his head.

Some said he deserved the fine, while others expressed relief that the argument ended at that. (Domestic violence rates around the world have soared during the pandemic, studies show.)

Italy, which captured the world’s attention in March when the coronavirus hit, is fighting a second wave that is almost as deadly. The country is also battling a sense of exhaustion and despair.

“People are taking desperate measures; they are overreacting to the stimulus,” said Adjunct Professor Jelena Kecmanovic, a psychologist from Georgetown University.

Referring to the man in Como, she added that, normally, someone might walk around the neighbourhood to cool off.

“But now it’s accumulated, accumulated, and he snapped,” she said.

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A party – and a fine – fit for a prince

After Prince Joachim of Belgium landed in Spain in late May, he was supposed to quarantine for 14 days and adhere to the country’s lockdown measures.

He did neither.

The Prince, 28, the nephew of King Philippe, instead flew from Madrid to Cordoba to meet his girlfriend. A few days later, the couple went to a house party with more than two dozen people in attendance, local news media reported.

Then he tested positive for the coronavirus.

Spain, which had one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns, has fined more than one million people for flouting those measures. It did not let the Belgian prince off the hook, handing him a €10,400 fine for breaching the restrictions.

“I would like to apologise for not having respected all the quarantine measures during my trip,” he said in a statement released publicly. “In these difficult moments, I did not mean to offend or disrespect anybody.”

Other public figures, including singer Rita Ora, rapper Cardi B, reality TV star Kim Kardashian and model Kendall Jenner, have drawn criticism for ill-conceived public forays during the pandemic, such as hosting large, mask-less gatherings.

“It’s quite hard to live life that different from the rest of the public and not to start to feel like the rules don’t apply to you,” said Prof Kecmanovic. But, she added, celebrities could use their power to encourage people to cooperate with the restrictions. “They really have power.”

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A craving for butter chicken

In Melbourne, Australia – amid one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world – Mr Noel Atkinson, a 48-year-old construction worker, had a yearning in July.

So he drove nearly30km from his home to a downtown Indian restaurant for butter chicken curry. But he did not get the butter chicken. Instead, he got a police fine of US$1,230, after they caught him contravening lockdown orders.

“I just had a craving for it,” Mr Atkinson said in an interview. “My mum was born in Ambala,” he said, referring to the city in the north of India. “It reminds me of home.”

As an essential worker, Mr Atkinson had been exempt from most coronavirus restrictions during the day in the state of Victoria. He explained that since he travelled more than twice the distance for work, he had not considered the drive to the city lengthy or realised that he would be in breach of the rules.

“I have to risk my life to go to work, but I can’t risk my own life to get takeaway,” he said. “That’s a bit unfair.”

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