Covid restrictions: a lot of image, no effect

Predictably, the expectation that vaccines against covid-19 are imminent has only… multiplied the number and variety of restrictions that the authorities decide to impose on the population. However, almost ten months after the start of the panic, the conclusion is that the generalized confinement, the closure of national, provincial or local borders, the bans of all kinds, have been able to reassure certain segments dominated by fear, even convince apart from public opinion but, according to studies, its effectiveness in reducing mortality has been practically nil.

In “A country level analysis measuring the impact of government actions”, R. Chaudhry and his collaborators point out that “rapid border closures, complete lockdowns, and widespread testing for Covid-19 have not affected the death rate per million people at alls “. For its part, in “Covid-19 Mortality: A Matter of Vulnerability Among Nations”, Q. Larochelambert and his co-authors argue that “the rigor of the measures established to combat the pandemic, including confinement, does not appear to be related to the mortality rate”.

No surprise. The strategic plans for pandemics, those who suddenly became wet paper and were swept away in March by the wind of panic, already anticipated that the authorities have fairly limited options to stop infections and deaths in the medium term … until the use of a well-tested and effective vaccine is widespread. By applying indiscriminate restrictive measures, governments can violate rights and freedoms, aggravate other diseases, destroy the economy, generate ruin, poverty, unemployment, inequality … but hardly save lives in the course of a pandemic.

It is easy to find a multitude of examples and counterexamples to understand that the spread of the disease depends less on government decisions than on factors such as geographic scope

Thus, countries with total or partial confinements, almost eternal, such as Panama or Argentina, do not differ substantially in mortality rate from Brazil, who has hardly experienced them. It is easy to find a multitude of examples and counterexamples to understand that the spread of the disease depends much less on government decisions than on different factors such as geographic scope (intense in Europe and america, reduced by Africa, Asia and Oceania), or the season of the year as low temperatures drive people to stay in closed spaces, more conducive to transmission.

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The initial expansion of infections is marked, in part, by luck, since, according to some studies, most of the patients do not transmit the disease while a few, known as supercontagators, they can infect many, many people. The chance that the appearance, or not, of a supercontagator implies, can determine the different course of one area with respect to another, at least temporarily. And the mortality rate in each country depends, to a large extent, on the degree of penetration of the disease in nursing homes, where the especially vulnerable population is concentrated. Protect risk groupsThrough a selective policy, it is a way capable of reducing mortality but it is not very attractive in the public opinion window.

Certain European governments, once referred to as models for managing the pandemic, have contemplated how the second wave washed away his image, how its rate of infections and deaths began to converge with those previously labeled as failures, probably because the disease progresses faster where there is no previous immunity. In general, the rulers cannot be blamed for the deaths from covid-19; Nor are they praised for their small number because, except in exceptional cases, these results depend little on their policies.

Voluntary decisions are the ones that count

As our ancestors well knew when faced with similar situations, even much worse, the slowdown in infections is more related to those voluntary measures that citizens freely take to protect themselves and care for others. In “Voluntary vs mandated social distancing and economic activity during COVID-19“William Maloney and Temel Taskin conclude that, in developed countries, coercive measures have had less influence than voluntary decisions to freely reduce mobility and guarantee social distance.

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Even more serious: These coercive, punitive measures do not reinforce voluntary decisions, but tend to displace them. When people act out of conviction, principles or responsibility, the introduction of norms that establish the obligation to act as many people already did freely and voluntarily … may have counterproductive effects, change the behavior of individuals in the opposite direction to that desired.

In 2000, an experiment was carried out in several kindergartens in Israel: they introduced a fine of three dollars for each delay in the collection of children. It is the type of measure recommended in Economics to discourage behavior as it increases the cost of non-compliance. However, against all odds, the number of late arrivals … increased dramatically. Furthermore, once the fine was withdrawn, the level of hourly non-compliance did not return to its initial levels, but remained very high.

It is a phenomenon known as expulsion of intrinsic motivation: the introduction of prohibitions or sanctions can lead individuals to stop acting out of principle, conscience, generosity or altruism. And aggressive regulations pertaining to covid-19 are no exception.

Shifting individual responsibility

Psychologists and economists have sought explanations for this phenomenon. In Motivation Crowding Theory (2001), Bruno Frey and Reto Jegen point out that coercive intervention transforms the way subjects perceive the environment. People can feel virtuous by behaving generously and correctly, be it by picking up children on time or maintaining covid-19 precautions to take care of their fellow citizens. But the perception of virtue disappears when it is no longer a voluntary action, but obligatory, when the transgression is punished.

They are more effective if they are internalized in individuals, not simply reflected on paper, in a law that vainly tries to regulate those small details that make up daily behavior

Invasive intervention too undermines individual self-determination, including their own self-esteem, since the subject interprets it as a manifest mistrust of the authorities in their good judgment. And it can generate anger, irritation, at measures that people consider exaggerated, unfair or arbitrary, an impulse to break the rules while simulating their compliance. Naturally, in those countries with eternal and abusive domiciliary confinements, people manage to violate them, to skip them to the bullfighting, something that leads the leaders to toughen the measures even more. In the end, the rulers and the media have convinced many people that we citizens are irresponsible, in need of guardianship, paternalism of our leaders, when they are the ones who drive such vicious circles.

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Social distance measures require will, personal conviction. They are much more effective if they are internalized in individuals, not simply reflected on paper, in a law that vainly tries to regulate those small details that make up everyday behavior. Done the law done the snare. Nor the return of Big Brother, of George Orwell, could guarantee that Christmas Eve celebrations in private homes are limited to six people, as some authorities have absurdly decreed. Such detailed and invasive regulations, such draconian prohibitions, strongly displace individual responsibility, contributing to the infantilization of the public.

In short, the imaginative measures that governments are taking, such as quarantines of all healthy people, limitation of economic activities or perimeter fences, contribute very little to combat a pandemic. Politicians do not impose them in favor of citizens, the vulnerable or the disadvantaged. Quite the contrary: they do it in benefit of your own image.


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