Crying wolf and doing our part

A number of people have noted that it is hard to persuade people to take COVID-19 seriously because it feels like the boy who cried wolf. Previous outbreaks of infectious disease, from ebola, SARS, MERS, etc., have been generally contained in a few regions, so the cries of pandemic have seemed overblown. To some people’s minds, this latest outbreak is just another in a long line of cases where media and public officials have restricted liberties and spread what feels like unnecessary panic. More cynical observers might even say these crises are pretexts for greater government control over citizens’ everyday lives.

The trouble is that this particular outbreak looks a lot more like a real wolf. As of writing, the growth in cases around the world exhibits the classic signs of exponential growth, and there is compelling evidence that many countries are severely under-reporting the actual number of cases (including, it seems, the United States). Furthermore, this virus seems to be in the "sweet spot" for a public health concern, for it isn’t so deadly that it burns itself out (like ebola), nor is it so mild that medical facilities can absorb it (like the common cold or the seasonal flu).

But there is another aspect of "crying wolf" to consider. The way to combat this virus is to create "social distance" so that the virus doesn’t spread as rapidly. This is a classic collective action problem, because for the vast majority of people, there is little personal benefit to social distancing, and often quite a lot of personal cost. Typically the government and media persuade by showing how a particular behavior is in an individual’s self-interest. In this case, mitigating the risk for those for whom this virus is very dangerous requires people who have almost no risk of their own to massively alter their behavior.

In short, we need everyone to pitch in and do their part, even if it doesn’t seem to benefit most people directly. But this kind of rhetoric is also common, and often has looked like crying wolf.

One can hardly walk through a museum or a zoo without being bombarded with claims about what dire things will happen if we don’t all contribute to the cause-du-jour, even when some of these causes are distinctly out-dated and poor candidates for action by individuals. Individuals can only rarely affect many of these causes, such as reducing pollution, minimizing plastics, divesting from fossil fuels, mitigating acid rain, protecting the ozone layer, conserving water, preventing species extinction, etc.. All of them may be good things to do, but the problems are ones of public policy or technology. Acid rain, for example, wasn’t reduced by ordinary citizens’ acting together; it was mitigated by better public policies and improved technology. The typical visitor to the museum can have only the tiniest effect on the problem, and often at a personal cost that makes this sort of ostensibly-virtuous action available only to the relatively well-off (e.g., using less fossil fuels).

But now, with COVID-19, we seem to have a real case in which it actually is important that we generally act in a coordinated way, and for which we have no time for improved public policies or technological solutions. But to people who have learned to ignore the overstated "we all have to do this together" messages in our society, and who have internalized the "what’s in it for me" style of advertising, it’s hard to explain why this time it’s different.

If everything is a crisis, then nothing is. I think our cultural elites (not a pejorative) have too often made everything they care about into a public crisis, evangelizing for their current interests, only quietly revising their predictions, rarely moderating their confidence, and almost never conceding error. And then a real crisis comes along, and no one is willing to listen.