Game-Theoretic Perspective on COVID-19 Mitigation
The unprecedented speed and magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a variety of responses undertaken by governments all over the world to mitigate the problem and tackle its knock-on effects. However, the actions of the governments have been numerously questioned. Often severe restrictions were accompanied by comments about the regulatory invasion, and compared with intrusive, authoritarian regimes. Meanwhile, governments’ hesitation and reluctance to impose restrictions was considered as an inappropriate action plan. Whether the actions undertaken by government X were appropriate, whether government Y should have taken another approach and other questions of this kind are likely to become a source of a never-ending debate for years to come. This essay will contribute to the discussion by considering the situation from the game-theoretic perspective by focusing on the aspects that affect the successfulness of the pandemic mitigations.
Game theory provides a framework explaining and interpreting “strategic decision-making under interdependent payoff structures known as ‘games’ ”, whereby results and benefits to each individual depend not solely on his strategy, but also the strategy undertaken by other agents. The following frameworks can provide ground for a discussion of the topic: "Stag Hunt Dilemma”, “Wait and See” Nash equilibrium, the Public Goods Dilemma, and Evolutionary Game Theory.
One of the aspects of the COVID pandemic can be approached by analysing the “Stag Hunt Dilemma”. The underlying meaning of the theory can be explained by the situation whereby a group of hunters go on a hunting trip. Cooperation between hunters allows them to kill a stag, which provides a sufficient food supply for the whole group. However, each hunter, let us call them John and Bob, is presented with a dilemma. John can maximise his interest and kill a hare, which would provide sufficient meat portion only for him. On the other hand, John can cooperate with Bob in an attempt to kill a stag. This way, each hunter will get a comparatively larger portion of the food supply. However, by choosing the latter (cooperation), John accepts the risks of not eating anything in case they do not kill a stag, or in case Bob decides to deviate from the agreement himself and kills a hare. A stag is much more valuable and resourceful, making the cooperation strategy a win-win for both John and Bob. In this game, the rationality of John's decision depends on his knowledge of what Bob decides to do. He should hunt a stag only if Bob hunts a stag but John should hunt a hare if Bob hunts a hare. However, the “hare hunting” implies that maximum benefit cannot be achieved, because it is assumed that killing a stag is only possible if hunters cooperate.
In the COVID-19 framework, lack of intergovernmental cooperation resulted in “hare hunting” when the global distribution of personal protective equipment and vaccine doses was happening. “High-income countries have ordered over twice as many doses as are needed for their populations”, which has left developing countries, unable to supply sufficient provision for their citizens, limiting their abilities to combat the disease. For instance, by October 2021 only 2.5% of people in low-income countries have received at least the first vaccine dose. This caused a high disparity between the rates of pandemic mitigation, resulting in the urgent need to impose various travel restrictions, especially for travellers from these developing countries to prevent transmission and risks of the new virus strain from crossing the borders. Furthermore, since the pandemic mitigation often causes the stagnation of the economic activity, education, and social events, significant divergence between the rates of pandemic recovery would contribute to an overall polarisation between developed and developing countries.
The “Wait and See” term is considerably self-explanatory. It describes a strategy of avoiding cooperation, by waiting for further information. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the approach was undertaken, especially at its early stages, in numerous cases. It, for instance, concerns those who avoid vaccination programs, by relying on the development of the “herd immunity”, as well as, hesitating to risk their health for the social interest. Therefore, large proportions were (and still are) waiting for the outcomes and safety information about the vaccination. This behaviour, even though is rational, compromises the mitigation of virus spread and prolongs the road towards a virus-free world. A similar tactic has also been undertaken by some of the governments. Prolonged waiting position and risk assessments, without any actions being taken, largely compromised domestic as well as global attempts to mitigate virus spread, resulting in the “Wait and See” Nash equilibrium.
The Public Good game examines the motivation of the population to participate in the maintenance of the public commodity and explores incentives to free ride. The optimum scenario is total compliance of the individuals, however, the larger the proportion of the population that is contributing to the public good provision the higher there is an incentive for an individual to free ride i.e. to use the benefit without bearing the costs. For instance, in the case when virus free zone is a public commodity, noncooperative behaviour can constitute a refusal to comply with distancing, hygiene measures, vaccination, and others. Evolutionary game theory, which is a “game-theoretic approach to biological population”, contributed to the development of the free-rider game explanation by suggesting the strategies that “evolved for organisms to maximise payoffs in fitness terms”. One of them is a “proclivity to free ride” which is explained by often “high payoffs of selfishness” and “low costs of non-cooperation”. The confirmation of the assumption are the experiments claiming that the non-existence of measures impeding free-riding, result in lack of cooperation. Similar results have been yielded by the study suggesting that the levels of vaccination coverage, that relies solely on the voluntary vaccination program, differ from those required to achieve the population’s best interest due to conflict between social interest and self-interest.
Each “game” discussed above, if simplified, leads to the situation, whereby optimal and rational strategy for each agent leads to a detrimental outcome to society as a whole. The arguments, thus, suggest that over-reliance on altruism and cooperation at such a scale and for a relatively prolonged period is unviable. However, imposing sanctions and punishment systems, is highly controversial and likely not to yield required outcomes.
From the economic perspective implementation of restrictions, such as lockdowns, leads to high losses due to the standstill of production and slow down of the economic activity. The long-term decline, resulting from business closures, loss of economically active population cause economic scaring. Additionally, it implies high costs of the enforcement of the restrictions from the state, while, additional problems are likely to appear once at an individual level costs of obedience such as loss of income, alienation, physical and mental health outweigh potential losses from non-compliance. Enforcement of the required behaviour by putting high pressure on the population can result in “stigmatisation of infected”. This pauses risks of people hiding illness and, thus, slows down the infection detection. Furthermore, even though some countries, (eg. China) have shown effectiveness in combating the spread, by imposing highly intrusive and restricting policies, noncompliance can exist even in authoritarian countries. It undermines the state’s intentions primarily through “secret activities and illegal gatherings”.
Therefore, bottom-up approaches, employing nudge-based techniques that fuel cooperation and promote compliance “as an act of altruism” are likely to be the most effective approach. For instance, Sweden, without implementing lockdown measures, recorded only 7.9% excess deaths in 2020, compared to many other European countries that were imposing strict lockdowns such as U.K. (15.1%), France (10.4%), and Spain (18.9%). Legal sanctions are likely to be beneficial only in cases of a high degree of non-cooperation that have evident negative outcomes i.e. “degree of violation with acknowledgment of potential side effects”.
To conclude, game theory provides a framework that allows to proficiently analyze the behaviour of individuals as well as populations. Thus, it should be considered as one of the pillars of the policy-making process. COVID-19 contributed a tremendous amount of data, patterns, and tendencies within and outside the scope of an individual country. Therefore, it provided a "fertile soil" for the implementation of old and development of new game-theoretic techniques which have the potential to contribute to the establishment of correct “does and don’t” for future crises.