We actually did remarkably well

While government reaction to the Covid-19 crisis was a little slow, people reacted impressively quickly.

Welcome to Plugging the Gap (my email newsletter about Covid-19 and its economics). In case you don’t know me, I’m an economist and professor at the University of Toronto. I have written lots of books including, most recently, on Covid-19. You can follow me on twitter (@joshgans) or subscribe to this email newsletter here.

This week I have focussed on our decision-making processes during the Covid-19 crisis. On Monday, I looked at how individuals have been engaging in many behaviours that have largely kept the virus in check. On Wednesday, I looked at how governments had information about the looming crisis and could have acted earlier to restrict people’s behaviour. Today, as it is Friday, I want to actually focus on something that went surprisingly well: when people knew it was a crisis, for the most part, they acted quickly and sensibly. Moreover, this was worldwide. In the scheme of things, that was quite impressive.

In many respects, I think the job title of “public health official” is to spend much time lamenting the fact that people do not act in the interests of their own health. That is perhaps why so many of them presume that we cannot rely on people to take care of themselves and act sensibly on the basis of information. That thinking led them to become overly prescriptive in what they want — for instance, shifting from don’t wear masks to always wear masks — when a more nuanced approach might be better. I have no real evidence for this, I’m just giving you my impression that public health officials tend not to trust people with nuanced information and so filter for simplicity.

Let’s go back to when people started to become aware of this. The following data is only daily new cases from January 11 to April 10. Note that China (mostly in Wuhan) had a significant outbreak before there was knowledge being disseminated about the virus. With a lockdown imposed in late January, it took almost 2 months for it to be brought under control. That is what happens when you don’t have people acting to get ahead of this thing.

Now let’s look at other countries. In Europe and Iran, the pandemic was in full flight mid-February but notice that only a few weeks later, by mid-late March, the new case rate had started to fall fairly consistently across many countries with a peak about March 23. This was despite some very different mitigation policies being introduced. In Canada, the pandemic was about three weeks behind Europe as was its peak. In Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan and the rest of China, the pandemic remained mild but again very different policies were being pursued for a similar outcome.

In the United States, the pandemic was growing at about a week behind Europe but it had yet to peak by mid-April. There was a peak at the end of April and in early May but not a dramatic decline as infection rates hovered quite steadily until the so-called second wave began in June. But delve deeper and there was a similar pattern of reaction in states where there were significant outbreaks early on. Thus, it seems that local experience with the virus matters to trigger a human reaction.

How did this happen? Think about it. Very few people knew people with the virus. Only in significant outbreak centres where hospitals were overrun (Wuhan, Northern Italy, Iran and New York) was there first-hand information that could spread. For the rest of the world, that saw similar moves to avoid public places and work from home, did we see changes in the rate of infection that suggest that people were mitigating of their own accord. This is despite caseloads being quite low. From a public health standpoint, the willingness of people to act suggests that they got the message from non-first-hand sources. The fact that it appeared to work is remarkable.

I point all this out to suggest that there are some bright things we can learn from this crisis. People are more aware than I think we give them credit for. The vast majority actually act in ways that suggest a concern for health and well-being. Yes, there are many stories of people doing that but don’t let that mask the aggregate effect.

My hypothesis, yet to be proven but that I hope someone will study, is that one factor that significantly assisted in the management of the pandemic was the Internet and smartphones. So many today lament the flow of information that comes from communication technology. However, I suspect that the Pandemic of 2020 will go down as a hallmark in the annals of the Internet’s triumphs.

What did I miss?