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Praise Folly in your Covid Policy

lockdown policy

Roar writer Alin C. Luca argues that governments should have accounted for natural rule-breaking tendencies when designing Covid-19 policy.

I don’t know what’s worse: to be in your 40s and still to believe in Santa Claus, or to be a politician in your 40s and still believe that people are adhering to lockdown rules. In both cases, you have to be either strikingly gullible or a hypocrite.

South Bank Rave

People stopped complying with lockdown rules when they realised they can legitimise their actions in light of the given exceptions (social bubbles et al). This is a natural cognitive process. For legitimising our behaviour, as explained by Professor Skinner, is one of the main things that we humans are good at.

I am sure you must have noticed this too.

For example, last Sunday morning I took for my usual walk on the Southbank. It is a splendid stroll alongside the Thames while the sun is slowly rising over the City.

But this time I had to be more careful where I stepped, for there were remnants of Saturday night in the form of party-garbage everywhere; empty wine bottles, crushed beer cans, Franco Manca pizza boxes, environmentally-friendly paper shot glasses, cigarette butts, and some champagne bottles too – social bubbles indeed. It was like Glastonbury moved its tents to the Thames and had an all-in-one party on Jubilee walk.

International Human Nature

Surprisingly, though, this filled my heart with joy. Not because I’m an anarchist who likes social disobedience, but because I’m a pragmatist that loves human nature and attempts to constrain it make me chuckle.

Now, of course, the laws of the land should be respected. But those laws should be made realistically and buttressed by viable enforcement mechanisms – not wishful thinking.

Important to notice is that this disobedience is not a London-only phenomena. Alcohol was banned in South Africa over the summer, but hotels and retailers went around this 21st-century prohibition by selling “special tea”; i.e., alcohol in teapots. In Romania, when pools closed people started swimming in rivers. Try to close those down. When clubs closed in Germany, people just started having “underground” raves.

Closer to home, something interesting happened when Tier 2 restrictions were announced in London. The only reason you were allowed to eat-in with someone from another household was for business purposes. Suddenly, overnight, every Londoner became a businessman and started having business meetings.

The point is that the public disrespecting governmental diktats is not something localised. Nor even particular to our century. It is an ever-existing feature of human affairs. It is one of the reasons that made Erasmus write In Praise of Folly. In the book, he gives a precious advice to our leaders:

“True prudence…recognises human limitations and does not strive to leap beyond them; it is willing to run with the herd, to overlook faults tolerantly or to share them in a friendly spirit.”

A Tale of Two Countries

Furthermore, consider two examples: self-isolation in the UK and in Taiwan. In the UK, shockingly, only 18% of the public that were required to self-isolate respected the 14-days period. Rarely did anyone from T&T physically check on you. There was also no material incentive for people to stay in quarantine.

Taiwan had such measures. Similarly, travellers into the country had to quarantine for 14 days. To encourage observance of the rule, the Taiwanese government gave them a stipend of $33/day. The compliance rate was 99.7%.

Policymaking and Pragmatism

Politicians should stop pretending that people respect the rules they are making. I know it’s a hit to the ego, but lives are at stake. This is why it is heart-warming to see that the SAGE committee recently recognised the failure of the past Tier system, and came up with a new one that seems more promising.

Moreover, policymaking should be rooted in pragmatism, not in hopeless idealism. You have to look at the composition of your society and what tools are realistically available. You also need a viable enforcement mechanism. Where there isn’t any, maybe the policy is not fit for a democratic system. Always be prepared to go back to the drawing board.

I write, think, and comment on international political stuff


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