Fire vs. Water & The COVID-19 Social Contract

How does the social contract hold up in the midst of this pandemic?

“It is not possible for minds degraded by a host of trivial concerns to ever rise to anything great” 

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In a recent piece published by The Guardian, professor of behavioural science Nick Chater writes about the opposing response narratives that are being undertaken by different governments around the world and, more specifically, our own sense of risk measurement amidst the increasingly difficult times brought on by this pandemic.

Nick outlines two metaphorical approaches that are being taken — that of extinguishing the virus like one would extinguish a fire and that of bracing against the inevitable tide that is the Coronavirus. 

“The fire narrative is implicit in the lockdown policies already in place in many affected countries, such as China, South Korea, Italy and Spain. The more a fire takes hold, the harder it is to fight, meaning fast, aggressive action is vital. Continual vigilance is required: each new flame must be extinguished. Crucially, putting out the fire takes precedence over everything else, lest the fire burns unchecked. Collective and individual sacrifice isn’t merely justified — it’s an overwhelming necessity.

The tide narrative, implicit in the UK’s current plans, is very different: the progress of the virus is seen as an unstoppable wave that will overwhelm temporary defenses. In this metaphor, the endpoint is clear: most people (perhaps 60% to 80%) will be infected by the virus, until the point of “herd immunity” is reached, when new infections peter out. The only question then will be how best to manage this process: for example, trying to slow, and evenly spread, the flow of new cases over the summer months when the health system is under less strain; and trying to ensure that the elderly and vulnerable are isolated while the infection rages through the population."

Professor Chater ultimately ends the article by suggesting a third narrative is perhaps most important to consider: that of honestly admitting our ignorance and trying everything we can whilst we defer to science along the way.

While the only answer to what will work best is one that can only be revealed with time, we do currently sit at an interesting juncture whereby we’re afforded the unique perspective of contrasting effective versus non-effective measures as they happen, in real time, around the world. 

How compliant can a society be under each varying context? How soon does, what many term, ‘behavioural fatigue’ set in as lockdowns and social distancing measures continually ramp up? 

Surprisingly, numerous studies have been conducted which serve to assess risk perceptions and compliance sentiments among people at risk of contracting infectious diseases. One such study, published as recently as last year, found that the perceived risk of infection (during an epidemic) paradoxically decreased despite the progression of said epidemic; in other words, specifically those of the authors who had conducted the study: 

“These findings suggest that people may fail to adjust their risk perceptions, and to a lesser extent their health protective behaviours, to the course of an epidemic.” — Raude, Jocelyn et. al. 

The study rationalized that this may be explained by the process of habituation — that we have an inherent tendency to normalize whatever our reality may be and, in so doing, become less risk-adverse with our behaviours. 

It’s not entirely that surprising — given that this is usually the psychological trigger behind the downfalls of famed drug cartel leaders or those with addiction issues to, say, gambling. But how different of a situation are we in as we bear witness to the gradual uprooting of our lives with no clear end in sight? The study noted above observed an epidemic, wholly unlike the pandemic that is currently spiraling itself around our entire globe.

How do we trust that our government is embarking upon the right path and how do we, ourselves, come to identify with the chosen approach? How does our social contract hold up as new wrinkles and rips become evident?

To gain some more understanding, I looked to Professor Nick Chater, who had been willing to provide his insights.

Q. How would you describe the link (if there is one) between the governments approach and the approach of individuals — from a risk behaviour standpoint? For instance, in a nation where the government employs the fire narrative — strict lockdowns and constant vigilance to put out each new flame — do you find that the people of said nation would align themselves to the chosen approach or would there be a higher likelihood for resistance?

A. I think that the narrative is crucial in influencing both government policy, and individual actions. If people believe that Covid-19 is a “rising tide” that cannot be stopped, then taking personal precautions is likely to seem pointless — -we assume that, at some point, we will get the virus anyway. 

By contrast, if the virus is like a house fire, then every spark must be put out as soon as possible; and each person will feel a moral imperative to take personal action — and to encourage other people to do the same.

Q. How important would you say it is for the individual to also adopt the ‘honest and credible’ narrative of admitting our own ignorance in the fight against this virus?

A. I think honesty and credibility is particularly crucial for governments, in order to gain the support of their citizens — and this honesty will require admitting past failings and current uncertainties. 

As individuals, most of us will be happy to do what the government says, if we believe the government is being honest and transparent in its advice. For this reason, our own beliefs about how the outbreak should be seen may be less important — what is crucial is whether we agree with, and abide by, the new “social contract” required to deal with the crisis.

The answers of Professor Chater prescriptively require one to cultivate a lot of faith in their respective government if they’d want to abide by an optimistic viewpoint with respect to how everything will unfold.

It’s not necessarily wishful thinking to assume that many of us will demonstrate a moral imperative to abide by the governments selected course of action — most of us are on the same page with respect to social distancing protocols and orders to stay home. At this early stage, anyway.  

Like Nick maintains, we must admit our ignorance as we wade through uncharted waters — how compliant will we be as we round month 3 (we’ve only recently just made it through week 3); and who’s to say that we’re not headed towards a year 3?

Regardless of what’s around the corner, moral imperative and faith in the social contract is not only something to be hoped for — it’s something that is seen by authorities as fundamentally vital to the management of this pandemic. 

With evidence of public distrust and unrest already circulating, with harsh questions being hurled at authorities via social media in response to increasingly punitive functions, and with our modern bandwidths of information transfer, the social contract is being held ever-closer over a flame of uncertainty.

The only thing we can do for the present time is to observe — and to, as Nick specifies, decide whether we agree with or abide by each new version of the social contract, or each new revision, addition, or deletion.

For it’s this intangible document that has been the prerequisite for political legitimacy since the time of the Greeks and the Romans, an eternally crucial rope that is pulled at by natural law and legal law, civic duty and political obligation. 

Right now, this subject may not be at the forefront of discussion. But after enough time spent confined to our homes, whether by personal preference or some measure of political force, how different will this relationship begin to look?

“There is peace in dungeons, but is that enough to make dungeons desirable?”
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Image by Gordon Johnson

More of Professor Nick Chater's work here.