Sanofi and GSK began human trials on a Covid-19 vaccine last week, and scientists’ projections indicate it could be at least 18 months before a vaccine is ready. Until there is a vaccine, we cannot go back to our normal lives.
Without a vaccine, interventions like social distancing, wearing masks in outdoor areas and hygiene measures have to be in place across the whole society to lower the risk of a rebound of infections. While such interventions have proven to be the most effective at curtailing rapid transmission, their effectiveness hinges on collective compliance.
One of the fundamental principles of economics is that people respond to incentives. Incentives may have either a positive or negative impact and as such, individuals will always weigh the cost against the benefit accrued. Incentives used consistently can alter people’s behaviour in a certain way towards attaining a certain public goal.
However, incentives can result in either desirable or undesirable outcomes. For example, the use of force may not be the most effective way to attain compliance as people often develop resistance over time, touting the infringement of their individual rights and liberties. This implies that choosing the right incentives is critical to spurring behavioural changes that can be consistently maintained over a period of time.
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Regarding Covid-19 mitigation, an intervention based on behavioural economics means an opportunity for the government to effect long-term behavioural changes that will translate into new habit formations with more long-term benefits and a reduction in overburdening our healthcare system.
The government is already facing challenges with the partial lockdown as individuals continue violating curfew directives, hosting secret parties, escaping quarantine facilities and failing to report suspected cases due to fear of stigma. This poses a serious challenge to the success of lockdown measures. Enforcement through use of force may work in the short-run but will only entrench the mistrust between citizens and the state. Non-compliance can be tasking and costly for any government. For most institutions, non-compliance leads to ineffectiveness, bureaucracy and a lack of public trust, which contributes to negative outcomes.
Building the desired behaviour will require citizens to voluntarily comply. This will be effective only when we incentivise compliance. Understanding the underlying reasons for deviant behaviour is key. The Kenyans living hand to mouth may violate stay-at-home directives. However, a cash transfer programme to offset lost incomes will enhance compliance.
People exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms may refuse to come forward for testing due to fear of stigma and undesirable conditions in most quarantine centres. Others may be reluctant to provide names of relatives and friends they have been in contact with, thinking they are protecting them from being taken to these isolated units. Some may also question the credibility of all these interventions based on perceptions that governments, especially African, are known to provide misleading information.
Public sensitisation is needed to make people understand that the only way we can receive a semblance of our normal lives pertaining freedom and liberties of movement and activities is to sacrifice for the short-term. The cost of non-compliance is a complete disruption of life as we know it. This encompasses an open conversation, not a matter of enforcement. Covid-19 is a highly infectious flu, not a crime. It is a public health concern and not a security threat. Robust civic engagement and education are needed to empower and enable the citizenry to take responsibility by altering behaviours accordingly as outlined in public health guidelines.
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The ultimate test for survival against Covid-19 is the ability of the human race to adapt to changes in human behaviour. The (new) normal post-Covid-19 will have a new economy shaped on new habits and regulations, based on reduced close contact interaction, and tighter travel and hygiene restrictions. The current social disruption will change how we work, learn eat, shop, socialise and manage our health.
Laila Denise and Ahmed Alwy are public policy students