Why Is It So Difficult For Some To Practice Social Distancing?
Right before this death, French physician and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, wrote in his diary that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. Today, while sitting alone in a room might not save a man from all of humanity’s problems but it will definitely save humanity from the man in case he has the virus.
As the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading in the country, government authorities have imposed lockdowns and are urging people to religiously maintain social distancing to ensure that individuals do not come into contact with virus carriers – especially those who are asymptomatic. This is being stressed to help flatten the curve, which simply means to achieve a reduction in the daily number of new coronavirus cases by slowing the coronavirus spread. This will help in 3 ways; first, it will reduce the number of new coronavirus cases, second, it will lessen the burden on the healthcare systems so that they are not overwhelmed, and finally to buy some time to figure out the situation. Social distancing and complete isolation if done rightly can drastically help achieve a reduction in the COVID-19 growth rate, as we have seen in China and South Korea.
Coming to the question, why it is so difficult to maintain social distancing? Brain opioid theory of social attachment suggests that social interactions trigger positive emotions and makes us feel happy. When we meet our loved ones or interact with people we like, in our brain, endorphin binds to opioids, making us feel good.
However, if we are assuming that we are rational actors as neoclassical or Chicago school of economics suggests that human beings are, we should postpone the enjoyment we get out of social interaction for the future reward of not getting sick by getting the COVID-19. So, even in the face of all this knowledge about potential risks, why on God’s green earth are some people continuing to socialise?
Behavioural economics answers that people are not so ‘rational’ and easily fall prey to lots of biases, fallacies and cognition errors. Take for example; we need laws and penalties to ensure that drivers will wear seatbelts although it is for their good. It is because many people find it difficult to forgo the pleasure in the present vs. the greater possible reward in the future. In economics, this is called future discounting. In other words, in the presence of two possible rewards, many individuals will tend to choose the one which comes early as opposed to late even the future reward is greater.
Human beings have been evolutionarily programmed to give importance to short term gains as compared to long term benefits. In prehistoric times, this totally made sense, why bother about saving meat for the next month, when you could be killed by a wild animal the very next day. We also saw the same behaviour in the relative near times, for example, it has been noted that during wartimes, soldiers tend to drink more alcohol. And why not? Why bother about the future when it might not even exist?
It can be deducted from this that due to uncertainty and lack of knowledge regarding the future, people may tend to prefer present rewards and ignore the future.
Today’s world is different, the level of uncertainty about the future has decreased dramatically and we have enough information to make informed decisions but even then, we keep on maxing out our credit cards, smoke cigarettes, order desserts, and binge-watch cat videos online instead of saving for future, going for a jog, eating greens, and finishing off that due paper.
In this case, most people know that the best strategy is to impose lockdowns and practice social distancing. Even then, the uncertainty of the future makes it difficult for us to forgo immediate rewards. In this case, the pleasure of socialising is certain whereas it is uncertain whether you will be getting coronavirus if you self-isolate or whether you will not get the virus if you self-isolate. Even from a rational point of view, the future is a maybe, a what if? Whereas the present is so certain.
For governments, it is very hard to impose lockdowns due to the massive economic implications. However, if tough decisions are not taken the impact will be even bigger. Governments should learn from China, by taking drastic measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, China was first in and first out of what could have turned into an even further economic disaster affecting marginalised groups the most.
In Pakistan, the government has imposed lockdowns and is urging people to stay at home. However, for some groups, this is an impossible situation. Daily wage workers will have to choose between hunger for their family and safety from a perceived risk of getting coronavirus. Policymakers need to make intelligent strategies that will make it less hard for these groups to stay home and practice social distancing. Otherwise, if given a choice between safety or hunger, everyone will always choose the latter.
Sarang Mangi is a development practitioner and public policy analyst. He holds a Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) degree from Cornell University.