As the world slowly opens up after the covid-19 pandemic closed it down, it is pertinent to ask some important questions. Why did we reach a stage where the whole world had to be shut down? Was it because the virus was unknown? In the past, the world has faced several other unknown viruses, some of them far more deadly and more contagious than coronavirus. But they were all contained with much less collateral damage. Where did we really go wrong?
There is a belief that the outbreak could have been managed better had China disclosed the nature of the virus earlier. If this allegation is true, why did Chinese authorities keep news of it under wraps? Few weeks after the virus hit China, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other health authorities started warning of its potential health threat. Leaders of countries that have access some of the best medical knowledge in the world ignored those warnings. Why?
In India, the authorities announced a national lockdown with just a few hours of notice. All transport was stopped. Why couldn’t the authorities foresee a scenario that crisis-hit people would want to reach the safety of their homes, even if they had to walk thousands of kilometres barefoot?
There were many exhortations from health authorities to maintain physical distance and wear a mask in public places. Why did so many people, even leaders of countries, refuse to abide by those instructions from experts?
So, while the beginning of the pandemic could be attributed to coronavirus, the real villain is the wrong behaviour of world leaders and ordinary citizens. The collective inability to deal with these vagaries of human behaviour substantially contributed to making the covid-19 pandemic a global catastrophe. The communication strategy adopted seemed like a power-point slide with bullet points. It was rational communication at its best. But even in life and death situations, humans do not always act rationally. This pandemic offers us proof that humans, for the most part, are not rational beings. The pandemic exposed other weaknesses in our understanding of human behaviour, too.
As the pandemic began, there was an attempt by Stanford psychology professor Robb Willer and New York University social psychology professor Jay Van Bavel to help in the understanding of human behaviour. They collated the best and most relevant research from psychology, sociology, public health and other social sciences that could help manage the pandemic. They even published this compilation in Nature Human Behaviour, a journal, in record time. But there was widespread criticism that these were mostly academic studies and not robust enough to be applied directly to a real-life crisis. Another team of researchers, led by Hans IJzerman and others, are in the process of writing a paper titled, Psychological Science Is Not Yet a Crisis-Ready Discipline. This is an indication that behavioural science needs to work harder to become an integral part of policymaking.
The WHO, in its Outbreak Communications Planning Guide, suggests that behaviour changes can reduce the spread of a pandemic by as much as 80%. But during the covid pandemic, behavioural scientists around the world failed to come up with effective behaviour-change strategies. Governments had no option but to go for complete lockdowns, a solution akin to burning the house down to kill a rat. In that process, behavioural sciences lost a golden opportunity to prove that they can make significant policy contributions.
But all is not lost for the future of behavioural sciences. The Kerala government showed that managing human behaviour is as or maybe more important than finding a vaccine for the virus.
The authorities in Kerala faced the same behavioural problems as in other parts of the world. But they managed it differently. The floods of 2018 and 2019 fad prepared the state not to ignore never-before scenarios. The Ockhi cyclone had taught it the consequences of ignoring early warnings. The Nipah outbreak in its northern districts had helped the health authorities develop a standard operating procedure to deal with a pandemic.
Also, it so happened that a commercial film in Malayalam titled Virus, based on real-life stories around Nipah epidemic, was released in 2019. The box-office success of this film in Kerala made sure that even ordinary people in the state were aware of terms like “zero patient” and “contact tracing”, and more significantly, the importance of meticulous planning in epidemic management.
The biggest factor in Kerala’s success was the broad understanding that individuals cannot quite be trusted to behave in a rational way. The authorities knew, for example, that individuals will display a tendency to hide their illness. Systems were created to watch all entry points to the state in order to identify the infected and isolate them. Local community groups were given the responsibility to ensure that people in quarantine followed the right procedures. Possible consequences of the lockdown on the large migrant labour population were envisioned as well. So community kitchens were set up to feed them. The Kerala government did not treat the covid pandemic primarily as a medical challenge. Rather, it treated it as a social behaviour problem. By doing so, Kerala has shown the difference that effective human behaviour management can make to a health crisis.
Globally, as soon as the healthcare experts realized that existing medicines were inadequate to deal with covid-19, a large effort was set in motion to find a vaccine against the illness. The inability of behavioural science to play a significant role in the management of this pandemic should, likewise, serve as a wake-up call for the world. It should set off a search for a fundamental, multi-disciplinary approach to understanding human behaviour in all its complexity. Bubonic plague led to the discovery of antibiotics. Let’s hope covid-19 will lead to the discovery of a cure for most human behaviour problems.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm