Stemming the spread of the coronavirus is already requiring radical changes in behavior.
It’s not just that we need to avoid close contact with most other human beings. We have to stay home. We have to resist temptations to hoard sanitizer and use the face masks that medical professionals need desperately. We have to make countless sacrifices, big and small, for our communities.
An autocracy can force people to do these things. But how can we get people to make personal sacrifices in a society like the United States? The government is issuing orders — but not everyone is listening. Moral suasion is not proving very, well, persuasive.
But it turns out economists have studied how to get people to set aside self-interest and to spur this kind of collective action. Critically, when many voices from the community are enlisted in the fight, public service messages have more moral weight.
Here are some lessons garnered from the fight against the 2014 Ebola epidemic, which killed 11,000 people throughout West Africa in the span of two years and exacted a devastating economic toll.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
Mobilize at a grassroots level.
Evidence from Sierra Leone demonstrates that getting local community members deeply involved can be a powerful strategy for getting people to voluntarily act in their collective interest.
Yes, Ebola is very different from the coronavirus — and Sierra Leone is different from the United States. But there are shared challenges facing every country going through an epidemic and there are some universal strategies to address them.
The key to stopping the spread of communicable diseases at an early stage — which is still possible in some parts of the United States and elsewhere in the world — is to find and isolate cases quickly. At later stages, success depends in large part on getting individuals to abide by onerous restrictions for the common good.
Build trust through direct, honest talk.
Two years before Ebola struck, a group of researchers had worked in some parts of Sierra Leone on an experiment to build community trust in the health system. (One of us participated in that research.) The researchers gave out awards recognizing good work by health clinic staff members. At community meetings, staff members who lived and worked locally listened to complaints and gave advice, like encouraging women to come to the clinics to give birth.
These strategies quickly produced important benefits. People living near these clinics had higher trust in public health workers; had more faith in the medical care they offered; and started using the health clinics more frequently.
Testing saves lives, so the first step is making sure we have the tests we need — and this is turning out to be a major hurdle in the United States. But those tests won’t do any good if people don’t use them appropriately. And the pleas and orders to scale back economic activity and increase social distancing won’t work optimally if people don’t heed them. Trusting the messenger improves results, our Sierra Leone study shows.
Harness the power of diverse voices.
During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Muslim and Christian leaders came together with televised messages about dos and don’ts — using examples from the Quran and the Bible that urged practices like thorough hand washing.
In contrast, as Ebola started to spread in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018, the government did not enlist religious leaders with similar grassroots campaigns — which proved to be a missed opportunity.
Trusted community leaders can influence the behavior of millions of people in the United States, and in other countries, and can help change the trajectory of the coronavirus epidemic. Sermons from local pastors and posts on social media from sports figures and movie stars are already having an effect. And grassroots mobilization and moral suasion have worked in the United States before.
All of us can be leaders in our own ways because we turn to one another for guidance and advice in times of uncertainty and stress. We are all facing enormous disruptions to our lives as well as to our livelihoods. But we can calm our friends’ fears and help them think through the ever-changing dos and don’ts of appropriate behavior in the new world of the coronavirus. And we can each call on people to act in ways that help our communities.
We need help from each other to make these behavioral changes now that so many sacrifices are being asked of us.
People need reliable information and leadership from government officials and public health leaders to tell us what we can and should be doing. But it turns out that isn’t enough.Unless we want to live under a regime of martial law or aggressive surveillance, we need to harness trusted voices in local communities to spur behavioral change. The more we form a volunteer army, the less we’ll need the real one.