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Fighting Coronavirus with Behavioural Economics

How can we fight Coronavirus?

Implementing behavioural insights to solve the problems of the pandemic

There are many challenges in creating effective public policy, especially in regard to Coronavirus. One of the most prominent is behavioural fatigue, the mental exhaustion resulting from forced compliance with new social norms. After months of quarantine and isolation, it has become difficult to keep people following social distancing practices. Recently, this has manifested in many countries with the eventual abandonment of “one metre apart” rules, the flooding of bars and beaches, and the throwing of large parties. This is perhaps the biggest challenge for countries trying to combat the pandemic without starting another lockdown.

Examples of behavioural fatigue

Several of the tools mentioned before can be implemented to help directly address some of the problems that arise when trying to combat Coronavirus. Some examples are listed below.


  • Problems associated with handwashing:  People don’t know how long 20 seconds is No prior norm on handwashing People forget to wash hands when returning homePeople don’t realise the importance of handwashing
    • Behavioural tools we can use: 
      • Reference points: create a clear expectation of how long 20 seconds is
      • Social norms: create an expectation of the desired behaviour
      • Reminders: remind people in key moments to wash their hands
      • Rules of thumb: remind people when they should wash their hands
      • Loss framing: communicate explicitly the negative consequences of not properly washing hands (see figure 17)
Figure 17
  • The solutions we can employ:
    • Recommend singing “Happy Birthday” twice while washing hands
    • Post signs in restrooms to remind people to wash their hands
    • More people washing hands will induce others to wash their hands as well
    • Create simple rules for when to wash hands (see figure 18)
Figure 18

Cleaning Surfaces

  • Problems arising with cleaning surfaces:
    • People don’t clean their personal items enough
    • People do not realise how dirty their items are
    • Behavioral tools we can use:
      • Reminders: remind people throughout the day to clean items
      • Reference points: help people notice how dirty their things are
    • The solution we can implement:
      • Post signs or messages on social media that spread facts about how dirty items are, and remind people to clean them

Touching Faces

  • Problems with touching faces:
    • People touch their faces too much
    • Tools we can rely on:
      • Salient reminders: add a blatant reminder to interrupt the automated process
    • The solution we can implement:
      • Encourage the use of strong scented hand soap or colorful band aids so that people realise when their hands go near their face

Sneezing into Elbows

  • The problem with sneezing: 
    • While sneezing into the elbow is the safest way to do it, there was no prior social norm on the proper way to sneeze
    • The tools we can rely on:
      • Prescriptive, descriptive, and social norms
    • The solution to implement:
      • Posts signs or start social media campaigns highlighting the efficacy, frequency, and expectation of sneezing into elbows

Social Distancing

  • The problems with social distancing:
    • Small restaurants can’t enforce distancing
    • People don’t know how big 1 meter is
    • People underestimate the consequences of not social distancing
    • Tools we can use:
      • Rules of thumb and default options: create easy regulations for businesses to follow and implement
      • Reference points: show people exactly how much to social distance
      • Loss framing: use loss aversion to steer people towards good choices
    • The solutions to implement:
      • Impose capacity limits for businesses
      • Install markers 1 meter apart
      • Highlight the dangers of not following social distancing protocols (see figure 19)
Figure 19


  • Problems with masks:
    • People don’t like wearing masks
    • People don’t know when to wear masks
    • People don’t understand the effectiveness of masks
    • People forget their masks
    • People don’t feel social pressure to wear masks
    • Tools we can use:
      • Social norms: make wearing masks fashionable
      • Default options: make wearing a mask the status quo
      • Reference points: Define the efficacy of wearing a mask (see figure 20)
      • Loss framing: highlight the dangers of not wearing a mask (see figure 20)
      • Rules of thumb: help people remember their mask
    • Solutions we can implement:
      • Create social media campaigns of influencers wearing masks
      • Create the expectation of wearing a mask
      • Create campaigns highlighting the efficacy of wearing masks
      • Create campaigns showing the danger of not wearing a mask
Figure 20

Seeking medical care

  • The main problem with seeking medical care:
    • People don’t know the symptoms of Coronavirus
    • The tool we can use:
      • Action plan: break down the symptoms to help guide optimal behaviour
    • The solution we can implement:
      • Explicitly list the symptoms to help clarify when to get medical attention (see figure 21)
Figure 21

Mental health

  • Problems arising with mental health during the pandemic:
    • People ignore the signs of negative changes in mental health
    • There is a stigma around mental health
    • People find it hard to follow recommendations
    • Too much information can exacerbate stress and anxiety
    • Parents don’t know how to deal with children’s mental health issues
    • The tools we can rely on:
      • Loss framing: highlight the dangers of mental health struggles
      • Social norms: normalize talking about mental health
      • Action plans: break down steps to take to reduce anxiety
      • Commitment devices: induce commitment to healthy behaviour
    • The solutions we can implement:
      • Post signs highlighting the dangers of mental health struggles
      • Create social media campaigns encouraging conversations surrounding mental health
      • Create plans that break down steps to take to reduce stress in moments of anxiety
      • Ask for commitment to reading coronavirus news one or two times a day from only reliable sources
      • Create signs breaking down problems people may experience and offering targeted solutions (see figure 22)
Figure 22

(sources, next page)

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