Fight with “fire” or brace for “tide”: the strategy for flattening the curve lies in the art of Judo

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  • By Diogo Gonçalves and Moinul Zaber

    The COVID-19 outbreak is a challenge that the world is now facing. Over a very short period, this unsophisticated virus seeking only a host cell has become a global biopsychosocial phenomenon; one that is unprecedented and can change the human society for good.

    The biological part is easily understood, but how about its psychosocial bit? The answer lies in the way humans are confronting it. In the absence of a vaccine, the only way to control its spread – and preserve the health of individuals and communities – is to rely on people to adopt several psychological and social practices that reduce the exposure to the virus.

    The world is already witnessing different epidemiological results achieved so far by different countries. The difference lies in the effectiveness of the policies adopted by individual countries and their residents’ adherence to behavioural changes required for safeguarding themselves and the communities at large.

    “Governments around the world are adopting one out of two stories: it is a fire that must be beaten back, or it is a rising tide against which resistance is futile and coordinated retreat is the only option.”

    Professor Nich Chater is one of the leading international authorities in behavioural science. In his recent op-ed, he argues that when governments adopt a policy to deal with a novel challenge fraught with uncertainty which also requires an urgent response, they need to create a story. This story is crucial to help residents understand the policy and to shape their individual lives to achieve a common goal. This story is the central component of the policy that determines how much support the government will receive, how well the policy will be implemented, and whether or not it will succeed or fail.

    According to Chater, to fight COVID-19 governments around the world are adopting one out of two stories: it is a fire that must be beaten back, or it is a rising tide against which resistance is futile and coordinated retreat is the only option.

    The fire narrative has been put in place by China and the Republic of Korea. Although China was in denial during the early stages of the outbreak, they fought back vehemently and now seem to be at the driving seat of the situation. Contrarily, the Republic of Korea jumped into action fully prepared and never let the fire go out of control. However, the further the fire develops, the more difficult it becomes to fight. Hence, in Chater’s words “aggressive and fast action is necessary, and every flame needs to be extinguished”. This requires appropriate legal systems to be in place and require the country and its citizens to be very determined (China) or very strategic and precise in their actions (Republic of Korea).

    Such narrative clashes with the fact that we do not know how this strategy would work out in Europe. Measures such as the use of new technologies for mass surveillance, logistics deployment, and total lockdown contrast with the ideals of individual privacy and civil liberty. Moreover, we do not know how much time it will take and whether a second COVID-19 wave will surge, resulting in extended lockdowns. This means that besides a public health problem, we would certainly risk substantial social and economic challenges.

    “Central to Kano’s vision for Judo was the principle of seiryoku zen’yō (maximum efficiency, minimum effort).”

    On the other hand,  the tide narrative, initially adopted by the United Kingdom, considers the virus as an “unstoppable wave that will overwhelm temporary defenses”. Hence, a country must brace itself until the point of “herd immunity” is reached, that is when 60% to 80% of the population is infected by the virus, and the wave slowly dies down. The wait may be shorter if scientists find a viable cure or a vaccine soon. Despite this, such narrative becomes difficult to completely stand for due to the level of uncertainty associated with the development of stable and effective immunity among human beings against the new coronavirus. So, what should governments do? The best choice to make right now is to opt for a strategy that helps to slow down the spread while the defenses are bolstered.

    Judo (in English “gentle way”) is a modern martial art created in 1882 in Japan by Jigoro Kano. Central to Kano’s vision for Judo was the principle of seiryoku zen’yō (maximum efficiency, minimum effort). In short, Kano claimed that resisting a more powerful opponent would result in defeat while adjusting to and evading the opponent’s attacks would cause him to lose his balance, reduce his power, and allow his defeat. To beat COVID-19, policymakers need to embrace the principle of seiryoku zen’yō. If governments choose adaption instead of resistance, through small, low-cost but powerful actions, they can enable people to behave in ways that will allow us to overcome the pandemic with minimal human, social, and economic costs.

    This strategy of Judo needs weapons that work. Fortunately, we are well equipped with those. The very first weapon is gaining people’s trust. People must believe that the government is capable of winning this war. Measures like containing the outbreak in pockets and uplifting citizens’ hope may work if people believe that the hardships they are facing will not go in vain.

    The second weapon is transparency. We suggest that the best way to deal with these phenomena is to accept and let the citizens clearly understand that we still have a lot to know about COVID-19. Hence, we need to test and adjust our policies as the situation evolves, always taking into account the current status of the outbreak.

    With the judo combat narrative, the goal is not to eradicate the virus through endless self-isolation policies, but to keep its rate of contagion at a minimum level, therefore allowing the economy to keep going and avoiding a country­-wide lockdown. This also means that a second phase should be planned where the goal will be to spread the cases of contamination over a longer timeline through the application of experimental contextualised measures based on evidence collected on the field and designed to keep the behaviour of the citizens at the centre. We believe the government can explore emerging tools offered by behavioural and data sciences. Hence, the third weapon is the array of interventions based on behavioural and data science.

    We have seen, in many countries, the use of new technologies, such as big data analytics, behavioural screening, mass surveillance of mobile phones, face-recognition and so on to track patients and suspected COVID-19 carriers or even to plan logistics. Contrarily, we have also seen privacy-preserving initiatives that encourage crowd involvement. These include urging people to update their health conditions and whereabouts at a very granular level through online reporting, QR code scanning, and other initiatives. In a pandemic situation, track-and-trace may help contain the spread of the contagion. However, the extent to which the interventions may be adopted has no straightforward answer.

    Some more “harmless” approaches may be adopted without much ado. Firstly, crowdsourced data may be used to plan logistics for testing and to forecast the dynamics and trajectory of the disease. Secondly, behavioural interventions can be designed to cut the contamination chains and thus contain the spread of the virus to a level that does not overwhelm the healthcare system. The success of these interventions varies among countries and cultures.

    Let us take a look at an example. People need to go to the supermarkets regularly to buy groceries. Hence, registering and analysing the behaviour of the customers may indicate the actions that influence contamination. Instead of using a mass surveillance mechanism, this could be done by identifying customers (e.g., through QR Coding), testing them regularly at some supermarkets and crowdsourcing anonymised results. Additionally, we could test different measures to influence the behaviour of people in this sample of supermarkets. This will help understand which measures work better (e.g., a minimum number of people simultaneously, floor decals to guarantee minimum distance, nudge people to wash their hands before entering the store, etc.). Effective measures can then be expanded to the rest of the country.

    “COVID-19 is a global challenge that needs to be conquered locally.”

    This approach could also be implemented gradually in other areas of the economy. From production to distribution and purchase, we should pinpoint the major potential chains of contamination to develop interventions that can lower this rate. Efficient use of data and behavioural science can help with the task. Inadequacy of resources may not let us test everyone but testing only those who have symptoms may leave out possible asymptomatic cases, which generates an over-optimistic and under-representative sample of reality.

    COVID-19 is a global challenge that needs to be conquered locally. Neither the “fire” nor the “tide” narratives will work out; keeping people at home until no-one-knows-when and shutting down entire countries is not a viable solution; injecting money in the economy can only be a temporary remedy – if the economy is not producing at all, we will fall into an economic pandemic. Hence, governments should adopt a policy that adjusts with the situation and ensures maximum efficiency.

    The potential good news is that through this process of trial and error, we may find innovative ways to structure our economies and societies that will restore the state of equilibrium in nature and evade future pandemics.

    *The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the researchers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the UNU.