A masked ultimatum: On irrationality in times of COVID-19

Priyanka Joshi & Subrato Banerjee

A large-scale study on the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 in Spain, that appeared in the medical journal, The Lancet, concluded that just 5% of Spain’s population has developed antibodies – evidence that a so-called herd immunity is unachievable without a vaccine. A key statement in the accompanying editorial says: “In light of these findings, any proposed approach to achieve herd immunity through natural infection is not only highly unethical, but also unachievable.” The only way to provide effective herd immunity is with a safe and effective vaccine; the race to find it is on.

Earlier this year, world leaders faced the dilemma of whether or not to impose nationwide lockdowns in the interest of health, given the certainty of economic slowdown associated with lockdowns. In an ostentatious attempt to rationalise our reluctance to curtail economic activity, grand speeches were made on why a herd-immunity approach, instead of a complete lockdown, was an appropriate solution to combat the virus. As it turns out though, herd immunity is achieved when almost everyone has been exposed to the virus, with some developing immunity towards it. These so-called immune individuals are assumed to then act as shields towards further spread of the virus, saving those who are not immune to the disease. Many epidemiologists and virologists believed that this approach would cause the deaths of millions more on account of inadequate access to timely healthcare. In any case, The Lancet study emphasizes that a vaccine is necessary to attain this so-called herd immunity. What then prompted our leaders to adopt an action that is bound to result in so many deaths? We also wonder when a vaccine eventually becomes available, how many people will feel motivated to take it, given the rise in vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccination movements across the world? If we aim to reopen economies sustainably the world over, a vaccine would need to be effectively distributed across the world. However, just as the one-size-fits-all approach rarely works effectively in a world as heterogeneous as ours, we may find ourselves at the crossroads of similar decision-making time and again.

In recent weeks, we also find an increasing rebellion in wearing masks in some parts of the world. We learn from scientific evidence that tiny droplets expelled from the mouth during talking, coughing, sneezing or any act of opening the mouth may remain suspended in the surrounding air for some time. These droplets may carry infectious viral particles. A mask, worn properly, drastically impedes the release and subsequent inhalation of these droplets, thus reducing viral spread among individuals – both symptomatic and asymptomatic – carrying the virus. Wearing a mask is therefore, a necessary act of solidarity, one that shows kindness and consideration towards the protection of our collective and community wellbeing. As a direct consequence thus, wearing a mask can potentially help prevent devastating economic shutdowns. Surprisingly, many count the compulsion to wear a mask, equivalent to a threat to their individual freedom. So although science provides us evidence for the benefits of wearing masks, why do we frequently find people behaving irrationally in the presence of a virus that has intimidated us with the sheer magnitude of its human victims?

Behavioural economists are now researching extensively on sources of such irrational behaviour. When freedom is threatened, people are willing to make some sacrifices to their own material well-being to mitigate the power of authoritative gestures that are perceived to have a negative long-term impact. According to Matt Rabin, the willingness to retaliate to treatment that is unfair and controlling, however, is also inversely proportional to the (personal) cost of retaliation (i.e. if retaliation is too costly, then nobody retaliates). A manifestation of this is, perhaps, what we observe among some religious groups that maintain that their right to breathe ‘freelywithout a mask, is God-given. A 5% mortality rate is perhaps not too strong a deterrent to consider “giving-in” to “whatever” the authorities require.

Our behaviour – individually and as a society –  will be key in tackling the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. These behaviours will thus inform effective vaccine administration when it is available, implementation of sustained social distancing measures, wearing of masks, fact-checking and being self-informed to prevent the spread of misinformation. Can we learn something from behavioral economics to influence our choices and inspire the world to adapt to a new normal in the face of a pandemic? Of course, first and foremost, it will be our leaders who will need to find a way to encourage cooperative behaviour largely amongst the citizens of their countries.


Priyanka Joshi is a biochemist at University of California at Berkeley with interests in age-related diseases, and a former Research Fellow at Downing College, University of Cambridge, UK.



Subrato Banerjee is
a behavioral economist at the BEST Centre, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, and an honorary fellow at the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne.