Behavioural economics can help battle Covid-19 | Opinion
The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has infected more than 1.73 lakh people in more than 140 countries and has caused more than 5,500 deaths globally. Given its exponential spread and severity, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 as a pandemic on March 11, 2020. With no vaccine or preventive treatment against the virus and massive uncertainty associated with its risks, Covid-19 has emerged as a common threat for all of humanity. As fear represents a key human emotion, behavioural economics can be useful in the fight against Covid-19.
At the heart of the transmission of infectious epidemics like Covid-19 is an individual balancing the perceived benefits of engaging in self-precaution — better health and life expectancy, with the perceived costs of the same — monetary, time and psychological costs of quarantine, social distancing and frequent hand-washing.
As one infected person risks infecting many others, fighting Covid-19 has a crucial element of public good associated with it, which is where the main challenge of Covid-19 lies. As conceptualised by behavioural economists, people seldom behave in a rational and unbiased manner in taking such cost-benefit decisions. They often use mental short-cuts that affect their risk perception and reaction to a sudden outbreak like Covid-19.
An epidemic like Covid-19 creates an environment of excessive uncertainty under which, behavioural scientists argue, humans’ perception of risk is driven by a strong sense of lack of control. The recent panic buying of masks, sanitisers and toilet paper in many countries demonstrates the same. Also, the spread of the virus is being matched, or possibly even outrun, by the spread of fake news, rumours and misinformation via social media.
The first bias that becomes critical in this infodemic is hindsight bias. Once people know that an event has taken place, they believe that the event was always more likely to occur. With official assessments of Covid-19 constantly evolving, hindsight bias may make individuals perceive any new information on Covid-19 as something that was inevitable. This may make them believe that officials should have already known where the situation was headed, thereby making them question the credibility of government efforts.
Second, risk assessment is more likely to suffer from availability bias, ie to judge the likelihood of an outcome based on how quickly it appears in our mind. Sensational news titles and powerful images of Covid-19-related deaths serve as convenient mental short-cuts for our risk assessment. We look for validation of our pre-existing beliefs, popularly termed confirmation bias; and judge risks to be greater when they elicit strong emotions. These biases often work together, leaving us hyper-vigilant, confused and panicky. This may impair our perceptions of benefits and costs of engaging in self-precaution —a critical containment and mitigation measure.
The government is already undertaking several initiatives to increase awareness. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message asking people to exchange pleasantries with a namaste is increasingly being adopted across the globe. This simple move helps establish social distancing as a desirable social norm. The ministry of health’s dos and don’ts posters, the VAAYU handbook for children, and the 30-second audio clip with every phone call are good examples.
How should behavioural principles be used to communicate more effectively about Covid-19?
One, address availability bias and hindsight bias by only communicating facts, action plans, and the expected role of citizens clearly and in time. Provide clarifications on misinformation visibly on ministry websites.
Two, disclose fully the risks of Covid-19 and the eventual outcome of community-spreading. Make a colour-coded risk monitor (green for mild, yellow for medium, red for severe) available on information websites.
Three, make it easy for people to find authentic information on Covid-19. Announce official sources through WhatsApp, TV, radio and print. Help people locate the nearest Covid-19 diagnostics centre via Google Maps, websites or a dedicated WhatsApp facility.
Four, build the correct mental model by publicising recovery cases of Covid-19 on ministry websites, along with the number of infected cases and casualties. Proactively circulate first-hand blogs/interviews/videos of recovered patients.
Five, establish the desirable social norm by showcasing video/audio clips of trusted public personalities encouraging self-precaution, expressing empathy and solidarity for patients, appreciating front-line health workers and busting virus related myths.
Six, reinforce precautionary messages repeatedly through catchy phrases, mnemonics or pictures showing namaste, hands in pocket, hand-washing for 20 seconds, and encouraging people to stay home if sick, use elbows while coughing, and use masks only when sick.
Seven, leverage default rules by placing hand sanitisers/soap dispensers next to entrance doors and office lobbies, elevators and malls for easy use.
These efforts towards effective risk communication by all public and private authorities will help build the credibility of government measures, provide people with anticipatory guidance, and help them normalise uncertainty.
Covid-19 is hitting humanity where it hurts in the most complex way — the human mind. Once we acknowledge the power of individual behaviour in epidemics, behavioural insights are not a choice but a necessity in our collective action against Covid-19. Either way, the coronavirus will live for decades in people’s minds. Our steps today will decide the form that memory will take.