View: The habits, risks and trade-offs of an 'unlock' paradigm

​​As Unlock 4.0 unfolds across the nation, to what extent will ordinary citizens continue to exercise caution and social responsibility? This article shows that the answers in fact lie embedded in the mechanics of the extended lockdown and a mixtu...

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The consequences and trade-offs of an early lockdown are abundantly clear by now.
By Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay and Avik Chanda

Even as the daily incidence of new Covid-19 cases in India crosses the 85,000 mark, the plummeting of the economy into free-fall has forced the government’s hand into a desperate Unlock 4.0 regime. This new paradigm offers a further ease of restrictions in non-contamination zones, including the re-operation of metro rail services in a graded manner, from 8th September, and the recommencement of operations for open-air theatres, from 21st September. And State Governments will no longer be authorized to impose lockdowns outside containment zones without approval from the Centre.

This reflects a sharp shift in the official stance from the original, guardian-like position of the government, in its "Jaan Hai To Jahan Hai" narrative – to one, where the onus of civic and social responsibility is primarily vested with the individual citizen. Interestingly, the extent to which people will maintain social distancing and general caution in the Unlock paradigm are rooted in the mechanics of the earlier extended, nation-wide Lockdown.


First, there’s the timing of the lockdown, a phenomenon hotly debated from opposing sides of academic and political fault-lines. Research undertaken in July, 2020 by a team of economists from Birmingham, Leicester, Bath and Pennsylvania shows that if there’s a sufficiently high likelihood of a disease being virulent, the government of a nation would tend to administer a lockdown early on – rather than later – in the pandemic cycle. The study further shows that in a democratic country, the decision in favour of an early lockdown would be strengthened if there’s general support for the government, from the electorate. In the Indian context, both the above conditions being broadly satisfied, would appear to vindicate the government’s decision of an early lockdown.

The expected consequences and trade-offs of an early lockdown are abundantly clear. Apart from a massive and sustained blow to the economy, severe restrictions on mobility would also limit the understanding about the dynamics of the disease i.e. how severe is it and how does it affect different demographic groups. On the other hand, this would doubtless arrest what would the spread of the virus, and save more lives. Further, an early lockdown by signaling the likely seriousness of the disease would kickstart behaviour from the citizenry which is beneficial for disease containment such as maintaining social distancing and practicing good hygiene. Some of these through habit formation will continue even after the government had eased some of the restrictions imposed earlier.

Habit formation often hinges on particular 'keystone habits', for best results. For example, imagine that you intend to take up a daily fitness regime. You start with exercising regularly, and before long, this practice sets off a chain reaction, changing other established patterns in your life. Over time, the exercise regime makes you feel more energized and productive, you increase your liquid intake, feel less stressed, and could well end up having a better equation with your family, friends, and work colleagues. Now, replace ‘exercise’ with ‘social distancing’ and these might trigger other complementary habits such as good hand hygiene. Behavioural research shows that new habits take over two months and at times considerably longer, to settle into a routine. This suggest that the length of the lockdown imposed, has a direct bearing on behaviour segueing into habit or automatic routine.
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Prima facie, therefore, both the timing and duration of the extended lockdown seem to point in favour of the approach taken by the Indian Government, in terms of enabling a newly enforced safe, hygienic and socially responsible behaviour to become a habit. However, it becomes difficult to reconcile it with the frequent reportage of incidents involving violation of social distancing norms, social congregations, cultural gatherings and marriage ceremonies, witnessed presently all over the country.

This apparent incongruity with the expected result is because, besides the factors discussed above, there’s another major element at play. One can think of this factor as a 'lockdown elasticity of habit'. A particular set of behaviours may have morphed into some form of habit, under a regime of two or three months’ total lockdown. But the key question is: when the switch flips to the 'unlock' mode, with a wide degree of freedom and mobility suddenly becoming available, to what extent does the erstwhile lockdown habit change, or remain sticky?

The answer to this is closely linked to how one perceives risks. Human behaviour in reality is often not wholly rational as taught in traditional models of economic behaviour. Instead, it is fraught with biases which affect our choices. In a total lockdown situation, life would have shrunk to a kernel of essential activities, such as using the ATM or making the weekly purchase of groceries. Let’s denote this set of 'essential' activities as A. Now, as life switches into unlock mode, a wide range of other potential activities abruptly present themselves, such as commuting to work (B), meeting a friend over dinner (C), enjoying a programme at an open-air theatre (D), and so on.

Rational agents would recognize that each of these activities carry some risk and would consider them as substitutes. In other words, if they are comfortable with a total level of risk R, they discern that R= R(A) + R(B) + R(C)+R(D) i.e. it is roughly the sum of the risk from each individual activity.
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Accordingly, as one component, for instance – the occasional dinner date – comes into the picture, one would diligently try to curtail risk on another dimension, e.g. by stocking groceries on a fortnightly, instead of weekly, basis. In real life, though, people are rather more likely to view protective measures as 'all or nothing'. Contrasted against the near-nothingness of the essential activities in a lockdown regime, the liberating promise and reward from all the additional activities momentarily, illogically, outweigh all the attendant risks. In the process, the risk of contagion is materially heightened. However, as a recent article in the New York Times argues, most people misunderstand risk, thinking of it as all-or-nothing decisions. Some plunge right in, resuming all allowed activities (and some not allowed ones!) while others continue to hunker down.

How does one reach the right balance? The key perhaps lies in a right mixture of incentives that can make the cautious people take baby steps out while having enforceable rules to stop the incautious from taking excessive risk. For example, the "Eat out to Help Out" scheme in the UK provided a state reimbursed discount on sit-down meals has encouraged people to eat out, at the same time restaurants had to put in place safety measures to minimise dangers of disease transmission. Figures suggest that over 100 million meals were already claimed by restaurants in August. The short run impact is of course more people dining out because of the discount. But as people dine out, many will have found it a safe experience and will continue dining out, ensuring a longer lasting impact on the economy. This needs to be complemented by restaurants continuing to take precautions to minimise risks as some undoubtedly will want to go too far and have big parties.
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More generally, the approach should be to encourage the timid through incentives and use enforcement to prevent the over-bold. To effect this successfully, any paradigm of unlock needs to be executed in small steps.

Gradualism, rather than shock therapy, is the way forward to a successful unlock.


Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay is Professor of Economics and Director at the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing, University of Birmingham. Avik Chanda is a business advisor, columnist and entrepreneur. He is the author of “From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption”.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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