Shut Down Diaries: The Social Dilemma

“Planning for something Simple on this side of complexity, is not the same as preparing for something Tactical on the far side… We’re working in the realm of may happen, may work, may not, but the trick is not to be bounded..”

On the last day before lockdown, I woke at 5am, my heartbeat up, the dread vague but present, our reality slowly sinking in. The scale of it. The change. The magnitude of the task ahead. In moments of stress, the body responds differently to the brain, faster, less nuanced; beyond the mind’s control. I lay in bed trying to sleep, running numbers in my head, trying to prepare. Is it better to know, or not know?

At the time of writing, New Zealand’s cases stand at 368. Official numbers haven’t exploded, but there’s a definite upward trend, consistent with overseas experiences. The wave is coming. Of course, there are so many factors and society is so interconnected and complex that we can’t predict exactly how Covid-19 will play out, but we can see the general trend – and this can be used to guide our response. As risk analysts / complexity scientists Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Yaneer Bar-Yam write, “the obvious policy left now is a lockdown, with overactive testing and contact tracing: follow the evidence from China and South Korea” – which is (thankfully) what New Zealand is doing.

“Touch the road and it’s shutdown / Boy Better Know when it’s shutdown”

To get some sense of what’s at stake (and as a stoic corrective to later panic) it’s useful to look at worst case scenarios. Recently released New Zealand modelling by James, Hendy, Plank, and Stein (2020) suggests that an uncontrolled epidemic would overwhelm NZ hospital capacity (Intensive Care Units) by a factor of more than 10. That means less than 1 in 10 people needing intensive care would get it. Which means a lot of deaths – the NZ-based ‘no intervention’ model indicates that 89% of the population would get infected, with 1.67% of the population dying: a staggering figure of more than 80,000 deaths. By way of comparison, the 1918 Spanish Flu killed 9,000 New Zealanders – approximately 0.78% of the population at the time – with hugely disproportionate impacts on Māori, an outcome tied directly to the impoverished conditions many lived under as a result of dispossession following the New Zealand Wars. In times of crisis, the poor and vulnerable always suffer more.

Efforts to avoid this worst case are what the lockdown is all about: the slower the rate of infection, the less overwhelmed our health care system, and the more capacity we have to treat both intensive cases of Covid-19 and more ‘normal’ life-threatening events (heart attacks, strokes, seizures etc). This shit literally saves lives.

The same NZ modelling suggests that, if followed correctly, the suppression measures currently being applied (closed schools and universities, case isolation, household quarantine, and population-wide social distancing) will limit population mortality to 0.0004% or as few as 20 deaths(!) – noting, of course, that such models inevitably contain error as a result of society’s complexity. But the magnitude of difference is clear. The stakes could not be higher.

However, as research (and common sense) suggests, a lockdown is only as effective as its constituents are at following it. In this sense, responding to corona virus can be understood as a collective action problem, or social dilemma. A social dilemma is a technical term, referring to situations where there is a tension between short-term individual interest (go and see that friend; take the boat out for a fish) and long-term collective interest (stop the spread of Covid-19; avoid overwhelming the healthcare system). There is a huge body of research on social dilemmas and the various tactics adopted by successfully cooperative groups, offering us a number of insights when it comes to riding out Covid-19.

Again, let’s start with the worst case. Perhaps the most famous example of what happens when collectivising tactics aren’t adopted – what certain economists might describe as laissez-faire – is Gareth Hardin’s 1968 paper on the ‘tragedy of the commons’. In Hardin’s example, farmers grazing cows on common land each have a choice: limit the number of cows (and so sustain the resource), or try to get more cows on than the other farmers (thus increasing their individual advantage/profit). So far so good, right? But such selfish behaviour drives a race to the bottom, leading to the collapse of the common resource, and tragedy for all.

Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest… Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Gareth Hardin

While Hardin’s work was much critiqued – for example, for its assumptions of individuality and competition – you don’t have to be a genius to see how such a situation can play out. In the case of Covid-19, Hardin’s work reminds us how collectivity can break down: if people prioritise their own interests over those shared by us all, the collective task of virus suppression fails, and a lot more people lose their lives.

Such social dilemmas remain common today: from climate change to paying your tax, there’s a tension between what is ‘best’ for individuals in the short term, and society in the long term. And while empirical research by the Nobel Prize winning Elinor Ostrom distills a number of conditions utilised by real world groups to overcome this problem of collective action at a local scale (i.e., small groups, a village) – for example, participatory decision making, clear boundaries, and graduated sanctions for those who break them – cooperation remains a challenge at both national and global scales. Think climate change and the difficultly countries have had in agreeing to terms that would, ultimately, be best for us all. Similarly, in the abstracted games used by behavioural economists to explore these dilemmas, groups of strangers larger than 10 are soon ‘infected’ by selfish individuals, causing cooperative behaviour to decline, and, eventually, the group’s collectivity to collapse.

One solution to this is enforcement: limiting the temptation to act selfishly by threatening punishment. This is the approach promoted by political theorists such Thomas Hobbes or Jeremy Bentham. For example, in Hobbes’ famous text Leviathan, the problem of collective action is solved not by recourse to mutual aid or trust of a few key allies, but via the imposition of force, a Leviathan, able to command obedience from all. In this sense, all centralised states are coercive, operating under a logic of “do what we say – or else.” So much for freedom.

Cover from Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, as envisaged by Abraham Bosse.

However, these coercive approaches soon come up against limits. Punishment is ‘costly’ – it requires time and resources to police – and there are always ways around its threat. But while Bentham’s idea of a prison where all could be seen (and so controlled) remains a thought experiment, Yuval Noah Harari points out that technology today “makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time.” Fortunately, New Zealand doesn’t seem poised to role out the dystopian nightmare Harari describes – for example, we don’t have the same degree of public cameras as China, nor the reception coverage necessary for totalising smartphone surveillance – leaving us with the police and their promise that those caught flouting the lockdown will be “having a little trip to our place,” provided they’re actually caught, of course. As the Facebook event-come-meme “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” makes clear, centralised attempts to compel behaviour continue rely on obedience, willingly given.

An alternative to the state coercion imagined by Hobbes was recently demonstrated in a paper by Hauser, Hendriks, Rand, and Nowak (2016) – showing how ‘global’ cooperation can be sustained via a number of repeated interactions at the ‘local’ level. Translated from its academic-speak (and extrapolated from the abstracted nature of the study), what this suggests is that people who have regular interactions with several ‘neighbours’ develop a level of accountability to each other. This accountability helps keep them committed to both each other, and the ‘group’ project of which they (and many others) are part. If someone isn’t pulling their weight at the group level, then their neighbours can call them out, helping to bring their behaviour back in line with that necessary for the success of the group. Such interpersonal accountability is both harder to avoid than the state, and often carries more weight – providing, in the authors’ words, “the first technical solution” to Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Or to put it another way, we keep our friends honest, and from this mutual accountability and commitment to a broader project, ‘higher’ levels of cooperation emerge.

This focus on local relationships overlaps with similar research on the importance of ‘social capital’, human belonging, and the role that shared values play in driving ‘costly’ cooperative behaviour. Taken together, they emphasise the importance of human connection and shared projects, as well as the power of mutual aid. In the context of Covid-19 and the lockdown, they suggest that our best chance for successfully containing the virus comes not from the force of state, but from using our own networks to highlight both the fate we all share, and the steps necessary to get through.

As evidence from Hubei (the Chinese province of which Wuhan is the capital) makes clear, case numbers don’t peak until around two weeks after lockdown – in New Zealand, that’s the 8th of April – offering those skeptical the ‘evidence’ they’ll need to flout the rules. Like Thatcher’s claim that “there’s no such thing as society”, such selfish behaviour is likely to become self-fulfilling, undermining the efforts of us all. In a study from the University of Sydney modelling the spread of corona virus in Australia, they estimate that a minimum of 80% of the population is required to adhere to the physical distancing rules for it to successfully contain the virus – anything less, and it’ll continue to spread. Again, the takeaway here isn’t the specific number, but rather that successful containment requires compliance from the large majority. Further, these effects are likely to be non-linear: each dalliance or slip undermines our collective task, risking further lives and extending the time necessary before the lockdown restrictions can be eased, and less extreme forms of containment brought into play.

In the meantime, we all have our part to play, as we always have, checking up on each other, emphasising our shared goal and the need for discipline to minimise the spread. As I understand it, such individual precaution is all about doing your bit, the only ethical response. Less ‘what-can-i-get-away-with’, and more ‘what’s-the-least-u-need-to-get-through’. As Taleb & Norman explain, “Precautionary decision do not scale. Collective safety may require excessive individual risk avoidance, even if it conflicts with an individual’s own interests and benefits. It may require an individual to worry about risks that are comparatively insignificant.”

So we are left to our bubbles: the surreality of near-empty streets, zoom meetings and a surge in walking, queues outside supermarkets and their 2-metre gaps – all are likely to remain, but, as Jacinda’s leadership has emphasised, “ultimately, we will only be able to do this if we do it together.” Just how collective is New Zealand? The coming weeks will reveal where we sit.

In the words of Peeni Henare, Noho tawhiti, Tū kotahi – sit at a distance; stand as one x

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