Law in Contemporary Society

Pandemic Irrationality

-- By JuanCoeymans - 15 May 2009

I clearly remember when Professor Moglen, during one of our first classes, talked about the ridiculous amount of money that the US government used to fund research projects to fight influenza and find solutions for potential mutation of this virus. If my memory does not fail, he said ironically (or maybe seriously) that such amount was lower than the budget used to buy clarinets for the bands of the Army. According to Moglen, humankind was exposed to suffer massive deaths if a dangerous virus mutates, changing its host from animals to humans. Curiously, or perhaps prophetically, only a few months later the World Health Organization declared that 33 countries have officially reported 6.497 cases of a new influenza pandemic. Our new friend, the A H1N1? virus, mutated and arrived directly from pigs.

Even thought at that time I was half surprised and half skeptical about the apocalyptic warning of Professor Moglen, the outbreak of swine flu revealed that such warning was quite plausible. However, regardless of the particular prophetic skills of Professor Moglen, this new disease is particularly telling illustrative about a specific phenomenon. Although I cannot deny that we are facing a new disease that will cause more deaths in the following months, the public reaction to the alarm disseminated through the media confirms another idea also discussed throughout our classes: that human beings are easily influenced by the surrounding context and their decisions are usually against what we should expect from a rational individual.

Newspapers, television and web sites have been spreading incessant breaking news about the number of people infected by the virus and also the number of casualties, including specific details as the age of victims, their hometowns and even their itinerary in the last days before getting sick. The public reacted accordingly: in Mexico companies were closed for several days, public events (including soccer games, masses and music concert) were suspended and schools and universities closed their doors for weeks. Likewise, in many international airports travelers wearing face masks are frequent, not to mention passenger during flights. Even in countries that are far away from everything (as mine, Chile) decided to close their frontiers with Mexico for some days in order to avoid the introduction of the swine flu.

Are people overreacting to the new epidemic threat? Is hard to know. To some extent, the massive and strong public reaction might explain why up to this point the new flu has caused limited fatalities and the confirmed cases of infection are still relatively few. However, when we take a look to some numbers about the other flu, the traditional influenza, I wonder whether the public response to the swine flu has gone to far.

In fact, only in the United States, an estimated of 25 to 50 million cases of influenza are currently reported each year, leading to 150,000 hospitalizations and 30,000 to 40,000 deaths each year. If these figures were to be estimated incorporating the rest of the world, there would be an average of approximately 1 billion cases of influenza, around 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and 300,000 to 500,000 deaths annually (flufacts).

Clearly, people do not take scrupulous precautions against influenza as they do against the new swine flu. However, the results of the traditional influenza seems to be, at least up to this date, much more serious than those of the new virus.

How we can explain this apparent contradict behavior? A simple but probably incomplete (or even wrong) answer is that individuals believe and rely in the information provided by the media, and therefore, they move and act accordingly. However, one more plausible and complete explanation is that offered long ago by Tversky and Kahneman: people base their prediction of the occurrence of an event not in the actual statistical probability of such event, but on how easily an example is available and can be brought to mind. In other words, people behave accordingly to a rule of thumb (or heuristic) in which the emotional shock of specific information can override the “rational” response of an informed individual.

Because the so-called “availability heuristic” is the natural response of an individual with bounded rationality, we cannot do much in order to avoid it. Moreover, in many cases this cognitive bias might be useful, as it probably has been the case of the swine flu outbreak.

However, a totally different question is what we should expect from our political authorities in these sensitive matters. A natural consequence of the limited rationality constraint previously described, is that people only acts when they are shocked by some specific information and moves even beyond what is the rational response. But from government, we should not expect something more than a simply overreaction when the problem is already a reality? Is the government allowed to just wait until a threat becomes reality, watch the news and only then move desperately?

From my perspective, one of the fundamental goals of any government, even considering that they are ruled by humans, is try to find and give an answer to those problems and threats that any individual or more simple group of individuals is unable to solve or foresee by their own. In this sense, it seems that a government that supports scientific investigation in these critical issues only with bits and pieces, and moves aggressively once the problem is in the news, is a government with a harmful cognitive bias. In this particular case, because the permanent menace of virus mutations can have severe consequences if finally takes place, a wise government must be able to foresee potential threats to the people and give not a desperate and ex post solution, but an adequate response in advance.

  • What this event primarily showed is that governments throughout the world know how vulnerable they are as a result of humanity's overall underinvestment in real issues of security, while the US government spends more on weaponry than all the other governments on earth combined. The rather panicky reaction of way too many public authorities that should have known better (with the exception of the WHO, which got almost everything right within the scope of its limited powers), shows both their awareness of the problem and their awareness of the complete inadequacy of their tools.

  • As the paper suggests, the response was far from rational, involving as it did failure to explain why the initial fatalities were a poor indication of the actual severity of the outbreak, as well as overinvestment in attempts to restrain spread of the disease days after it was apparent to all knowledgeable observers that it could no longer be contained.

  • But while the essay offers correct analysis of the situation in one respect, basically agreeing that what I had said was obvious earlier in the term had turned out to be obvious after all, it goes no further than the explication of my original point. A clearer version of the warning I initially issued turned up within weeks, and the world's governments' preparation was shown to be as inadequate as I maintained, but the genetics turned out lucky, and we have been spared what might have been hundreds of millions of deaths, and now everyone is going to forget again, and go back to military spending on "national security" as usual. The essay has nothing to offer beyond a bare recapitulation of the fact that I said all this would happen months ago. It isn't prophecy, it's realism. Realism is useful, but the essay doesn't really use it.

  • So what would be effective in improving the essay would be a further step: how does the human race organize itself to deal with such problems? What should be the form of our response, and how could practical politics produce the result we need?

I would like to quote the following passage from "Cannibalism and The Common Law".

"From the province of Yunnan in China, and ultimately from its reservoir in Central Asia, bubonic plague reached Hong Kong in May of 1894, and in the following years of third pandemic, which killed 13 million people, it was carried by ships to all the major seaports of the world."

One lesson I learned from this is that the first wave of pandemic may not have killed too many people. The most lethal one is the following waves. The US promise to spend close to 1 billion on developing the vaccine largely because this worry. The second lesson is globalization strengthen the effectiveness of communicative disease. Before it was by ship, now it is by airplanes.

-- XinpingZhu - 24 May 2009


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:42:31 - IanSullivan
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