Since 2019, the appearance of COVID-19 has caused millions of deaths and billions of infected people across the globe. With coronavirus cases skyrocketing, countries like India, which are facing acute shortage of medical equipment, medicines, and vaccines, drawing attention towards its treatment at ground level and creating awareness about precautions, becomes important. This article aims to address the same by looking at behavioral economics, an integral part of the study of economics. Behavioral economics is an intersectional study of psychology and economics which relates to economic decision-making processes of individuals and institutions. This strand of economics lays down the theoretical framework which helps in understanding that human beings are not machines when they take economic decisions, but humans with all our wonderful flaws. Furthermore, it offers the possibility to improve the design of public policies and, therefore, to enhance their results.
KEYWORDS: COVID19, Behavioral Economics, Policy Measures, Human Behavior, Nudge, Infodemic & Pandemic
India is facing a rapid increase in the coronavirus cases in the second wave, one primary reason being the irresponsible behavior of its citizens. According to experts at the John Hopkins Medicine, human behavior is a major factor contributing to the second wave of the COVID19 pandemic. COVID19 protocols, too, came along with the pandemic, becoming a part and parcel of the daily routine of people since its breakout. Many people spent about one year locked inside their homes. Consequently, once stringent rules were relaxed, people broke out from their homes, and penalties were not enforced. The pattern was seen across the country allowing coronavirus to create a second and possibly stronger wave. Violations of the protocols by the political leaders during election campaigning further worsened the situation. Other contributors to the high spike in COVID 19 cases in the second wave are high urban mobility. Cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Pune have greater mobility giving more opportunities for the virus to spread from one person to another and hence, were worst-affected during the second wave. Another reason is, the difficulty to understand the correlations of the several mutations of coronavirus by the scientists. Also, it is right to point out that in our present fight, we are not only dealing with the pandemic but also with an ‘infodemic’, which means fighting against an environment filled with misinformation and disinformation.
While hand wash is one of the effective tools to prevent the transmission of coronavirus, the percentage of Indians in terms of hygiene is dismal. The 76th round of National Sample Survey report reveals that only 25.3% households in rural and 56% in urban areas wash hands with soap before a meal - 2.7% households in India wash hands with ash, mud, and sand before meals. About 26 % of Indians don’t wash their hands with soap or detergent after defecation. 13.4% households wash hands only with water after defecation. Apart from hand washing, vaccine hesitancy stands as a major hurdle in achieving a virus-free country as the vaccines lack public trust, causing low vaccination rate across India.
In addition to imposition of temporary lockdowns across the world, many countries responded by setting up mechanisms to monitor social contact and break the chain of contagion. Israel’s HaMagen, German’s Corona DataSpende, TraceTogether for Singaporean contact numbers are few examples for the same. They developed mobile applications to track contact between people, for instance, Arogya Setu in the case of India. This application, with a self-testing function, notifies users if they have crossed paths with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID. Tracking is done via Bluetooth and a location-generated graph that charts proximity with anyone infected. Hence, contact tracing becomes important in fighting against coronavirus pandemic. Technical and economic barriers were not the only hindrances to be countered. Mobile network also led to its ineffectiveness. The success of mobile applications requires the target population to download it, but not many people downloaded Arogya Setu in India.
As we get closer to a breakthrough in this fight, the last lap of the global race towards the access and delivery of the vaccine continues. Vaccination against preventable diseases can be considered as a public good and creates positive externalities as they not only directly protect vaccinated individuals but also indirectly benefit the unvaccinated. However, an increase in the vaccination rate can create a paradoxical effect and social dilemma, which leads to a free rider problem. A free rider is one who wants others to pay for a public good but plans to use the good themselves. Here the free riding problem indicates the increasing tendency of individuals to not get vaccinated because as societal vaccination rates increase, the immune population will also protect the unvaccinated individuals too. The unvaccinated individuals are the free riders. Due to vaccination’s costs and risks, the individual’s ‘free-riding’ tendency increases. Hence, vaccine skepticism has the potential to undermine efforts to control the disease.
COMBATING THE PROBLEMS VIA BEHAVIORAL APPROACH
In economics, consumers are considered to be rational. Their sole objective is to maximize the utility from the basket of commodities that they choose to consume, or the actions they perform or undertake. Hence, behavioral economics proposes several solutions in dealing with such cases, including pandemics.
As per the WHO report 2020, frequent and proper hand hygiene can be used to prevent COVID-19 infection. But as per the recent NSS report, it seems that hand washing is still a challenge in India. To instill the habit of hand washing among individuals, nudges (nudge; a policy intervention aimed at predictably changing human behavior without limiting the freedom of choice) from behavioral science can be adopted. For instance, to improve rates of hand washing with soap after using the toilet in schools, hand washing stations were built in visible and easy‐to‐reach locations. Brightly colored paths were painted from toilets to the hand-washing station, and footprints and handprints were painted on the path to make the process of hand-washing more appealing to the children. Panels or posters can be placed at home which would remind people of the need to wash their hands, along with graphic instructions on how to do so properly. Placing alcoholic sanitizers at work places with panels can prove to be effective. In order to encourage people to not touch their faces frequently, wearing objects such as a bracelet or a colored band can work because an external object can act as a sensory cue to convert an unconscious habit into a conscious one. This will not stop the transmission of the disease though, but it will remind your brain to stop touching your face.
To overcome the problem of the network effect discussed above, behavioral economics provides a number of solutions such as defaults, nudges, and rewards schemes and lotteries. These may be in the form of communications like sending an SMS with a download link to people in areas where contagion is higher, or they could involve gamification to increase uptake among younger generations while defaults can be employed to tackle awareness problems amid pandemic, for instance IE Business School in Madrid requested everyone on campus to download Radar COVID before entering any campus building.
To tackle the problem of vaccine hesitancy and establish public trust, behavioral economists proposed some suggestions which include increasing observability and leveraging natural scarcity. Studies have shown consumers' ability to observe others' choices can increase an innovation's rate of adoption. Distributing tokens, digital badges may prove to be effective in increasing consumer buy-in for vaccines. Scarcity often signals exclusivity and prompts greater desirability in the consumer market. Communicators should frame early access to vaccines as a mark of honor and respect for the targeted population. Leveraging scarcity may help to counteract many individuals' natural hesitancy to "go first". Also, there is an urgent need to counter the growth of vaccine misinformation by taking more pre-emptive action. Measures such as inoculation messages, where inoculation means to immunize the public against misinformation, especially around the medical consensus on safety and efficacy, and unveiling the manipulation techniques can be used to dupe people with vaccine-related misinformation. As the influence of misinformation grows stronger, it debilitates public health and the longer it goes unchallenged. Hence, COVID-19 health messaging can harness both ways in which inoculation theory is used to protect healthier beliefs and actions and building resistance to unhealthy influence, like conspiracy theories, and encouraging healthier behaviors, like social distancing, wearing a mask in public and taking vaccine shots.
CONCLUSION AND THE WAY FORWARD
The field of behavioral economics has made significant advances in recent years in understanding how people make decisions. It is high time that we pay close attention to the findings of the behavioral economists while figuring out the best ways to redesign people's choice architecture in the context of flu shots and combating a pandemic like COVID-19. If we can ‘nudge’ people to make different choices through small changes in people's choice framework, it will involve relatively little societal cost and save society much more costs incurred due to illnesses. Then, it’s worth making the tradeoff. It’s vitally important that we use the insights offered by behavioral economics to achieve the goal.
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