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Behavioral economics can help combat Covid-19 | Opinion – analysis


The new coronavirus (Covid-19) has infected more than 1.73 lakh people in more than 140 countries and has caused more than 5,500 deaths worldwide. Given its exponential extent and severity, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. With no vaccine or preventive treatment against the virus and the massive uncertainty associated with its risks, Covid-19 has become Become a Common Threat to All Humanity Because fear represents a key human emotion, behavioral economics can be helpful in the fight against Covid-19.

At the heart of the transmission of infectious epidemics like Covid-19 is an individual who balances the perceived benefits of participating in self-precaution: better health and life expectancy, with the perceived costs of it: monetary, time and psychological costs. quarantine, social distancing and frequent handwashing.

As an infected person runs the risk of infecting many others, fighting Covid-19 has a crucial element of public good associated with it, which is where Covid-19’s main challenge lies. As conceptualized by behavioral economists, people rarely behave rationally and impartially in making such cost-benefit decisions. They often use mental shortcuts that affect their perception of risk and reaction to a sudden outbreak like Covid-19.

An epidemic like Covid-19 creates an environment of excessive uncertainty under which, according to behavioral scientists, humans’ perception of risk is driven by a strong sense of lack of control. The recent panic purchase of masks, disinfectants, and toilet paper in many countries demonstrates the same. Furthermore, the spread of the virus is being matched, or possibly even surpassed, by the spread of fake news, rumors, and disinformation through social media.

The first bias that becomes critical in this infodemic is retrospective bias. Once people know that an event has occurred, they believe it was always more likely to occur. With official Covid-19 evaluations constantly evolving, hindsight can make people perceive any new information about Covid-19 as inevitable. This may lead them to believe that officials should have already known where the situation was heading, leading them to question the credibility of the government’s efforts.

Second, the risk assessment is more likely to suffer from an availability bias, that is, judge the probability of a result based on how fast it appears in our minds. Sensational news headlines and powerful images of Covid-19 related deaths serve as convenient mental shortcuts to our risk assessment. We seek validation of our pre-existing beliefs, popularly called confirmation biases; and judges that the risks are greater when they provoke strong emotions. These biases often work together, leaving us hyper vigilant, confused, and terrified. This can harm our perception of the benefits and costs of taking precautions, a critical measure of containment and mitigation.

The government is already undertaking various initiatives to raise awareness. Message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking people to exchange jokes with namaste It is increasingly being adopted worldwide. This simple movement helps establish social distancing as a desirable social norm. The do’s and don’ts signs at the ministry of health, the VAAYU children’s handbook and the 30-second audio clip with each phone call are good examples.

How should behavioral principles be used to communicate more effectively about Covid-19?

One, address availability bias and hindsight bias by communicating facts, action plans, and the expected role of citizens clearly and on time. Provide clarification on erroneous information visible on ministry websites.

Two, fully disclose the risks of Covid-19 and the end result of community outreach. Make a color-coded risk monitor (green for mild, yellow for medium, red for severe) available on the information websites.

Three, make it easy for people to find authentic information about Covid-19. Advertise official sources through WhatsApp, TV, radio and print. Help people locate the nearest Covid-19 diagnostic center through Google Maps, websites, or a dedicated WhatsApp facility.

Four, build the right mental model by advertising Covid-19 recovery cases on ministry websites, along with the number of infected cases and victims. Proactively circulate first-hand blogs / interviews / videos of recovered patients.

Five, set the desirable social norm by displaying videos / audio clips of trusted public figures who encourage self-caution, express empathy and solidarity with patients, appreciate front-line health workers, and destroy virus-related myths. .

Six, reinforce caution messages repeatedly through catchy phrases, mnemonics, or pictures that show namaste, hands in pocket, wash hands for 20 seconds, and encourage people to stay home if they are sick, use their elbows when coughing, and wear masks only when they are sick.

Seven, take advantage of predetermined rules by placing hand sanitizers / soap dispensers next to front doors and foyers of offices, elevators, and shopping malls for ease of use.

These efforts towards effective risk communication by all public and private authorities will help build the credibility of government action, provide people with advance guidance, and help normalize uncertainty.

Covid-19 is hitting humanity where it hurts in the most complex way: the human mind. Once we recognize the power of individual behavior in epidemics, behavioral 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 shape that memory will take.

Tulsipriya Rajkumari and Sanjana Kadyan are officers of the Indian Economic Service (IES)

working in the finance ministry

The opinions expressed are personal.

Hindustan Times