If the recent poll by Gallup Pakistan is any guide, about 62 percent of Pakistanis feel the threat from coronavirus is “exaggerated”. In India that number stands at 51 percent, close to the global average.
Let’s, for now, ignore the definitional concerns and subjective nature of what may be meant by “threat” or by “exaggerated” in that poll. The poll, nevertheless, highlights the importance of the discussion that we need to have on lay perceptions of COVID-19. Until such time the virus tapers off on its own, or drugs/vaccines to treat/prevent it are discovered, perception management is the strongest line of defence against the virus, since individual and public perception drives human behaviour, especially in a country whose state doesn’t have a great governance or firepower of sanctions.
A review of medical literature reveals that epidemic prevention and control strategies can be categorised into two broad types: pharma and non-pharma. The former relates to medicines and vaccines. The latter relates to administrative, and/or personal protection. When a new pandemic strikes humanity, medical science community scrambles to find pharma-based solutions. But until pharma solutions appear on shelves, non-pharma solutions are the only and best bet against pandemics.
But the success or failure of both types of non-pharma measures, self-care and state administration, rests on people’s perception of pandemic as a threat, and their perception of non-pharma measures as an effective measure against the virus. Understanding and classifying people’s perceptions, therefore, are instrumental in the fight against pandemics.
In this world, there are Humans and there are Econs, to borrow the differentiation popularised by Thaler and Sunstein. The Humans are humans as they are, and Econs are humans as rational agents assumed by economists. Those who understand humans as Humans rather than Econs, know well the labyrinthic pathways of perceptions, and the tricks of the mind.
How perceptions are deeply rooted in the sub-conscious; how it often has no logical basis; how they are influenced by cultural, religious, and emotional values; and often it only exhibits in behaviour even if its verbal expression is quite the opposite - these are all tricky affairs.
Implication: The government needs to get a better handle on how Pakistanis are perceiving Covid-19. People’s perception of health risks to themselves and to others. Their perception of the effectiveness of non-pharma measures. Real or misperceived reasons of risk denial. Risks of being infected and severity of the infection. People’s understanding of different routes of disease transmission. Perceptions of risks of being a carrier. Adaptive believe and attitudes. These and many other broad facets of perception ought to be gauged to be able to better develop risk communication and tinker with perception to ensure the success of non-pharma measures.
If the government doesn’t have the capacity or funding to run this exercise or lacks the intellectual wherewithal to understand the importance of perception, then those in the business of public perception, such as Gallup Pakistan, should do so. They could seek funding from government, donors or private sector (if not do it pro-bono), and team up with local FM radios, regional & mainstream TV channels, and community organisations for a detailed perception survey aimed at informing a tailored strategy to deal with the crisis.
It’s too early to say whether or not Covid-19 will have a second or third round of impact, as did the Spanish Flu. But as the matter stands now, Pakistan and the world at large are in this for a long haul; perhaps even as later as March 2021 as some predictions go. Pretty soon the lockdown fatigue may also kick in, whereas Ramadan is also around the bend.
If non-pharma measures are the only line of defence until pharma comes to aid, then understanding of the perceptions of lay people and its management holds the key. Might one remind that there are no hurrahs if merely a simple majority of people take Covid-19 and non-pharma measures seriously; unless all or at least a significant majority of the population takes it seriously, human lives will still be at risk of being perished.