• Kenneth Jacobs

By all means: Mitigate COVID-19

Updated: May 9

As of this writing, COVID-19 has infected all 50 of the United States. Mitigation strategies––as simple as hand-washing and as complex as social distancing––are actively being implemented. Mandates to close schools, non-essential businesses, and to "shelter in place" are being made at a statewide scale. All efforts are to "flatten the curve":

"Curves" like these help us to predict and prepare for future events. The science behind any one curve, though, is complex to say the least. There's no one person who can understand the effects of a disease that is all at once biological, psychological, and social. In other words, there is too much complexity for any one person to make the right decisions alone. State and local officials are right to trust the diverse range of experts before them: the epidemiologists, immunologists, behavioral scientists, and public health experts alike. But what do we do when the individuals who make up the state do not conform?

Social Consequences

Social distancing is a form of infection control meant to stymie the spread of disease. Public health officials have depicted the consequences of social distancing like such:

  • "No collective response" means an an overwhelmed healthcare system and more deaths. It is what happens when we maintain physical contact with the close ties in our neighborhood and long ties across our social networks. It is what happens when we hoard toiletries and personal protective equipment (PPE) for ourselves and at the expense of others.

  • "Strong collective response"––the "best case scenario"––is if we work from home, refrain from traveling, and cancel social events. The consequence is fewer daily cases and enough hospital beds and PPEs for those who need them.

  • "Strong collective response" in the "Short-term only" means fewer daily cases now, but more daily cases later. It is what happens when we have a premature celebration that stokes the contagion.

The Public and its Problems

The consequences of any response to COVID-19 depends upon the individuals who make them. According to Dewey (1927) "The Public" is the constellation of consequences––between individuals––that need to be cared for because of "its Problems." Dewey (1927) referred to social contacts as transactions, and for every transaction there are positive and/or negative consequences. Here is how Dewey (1927) said it:

"We take then our point of departure from the objective fact that human acts have consequences upon others, that some of these consequences are perceived, and that their perception leads to subsequent effort to control action so as to secure some consequences and avoid others. Following this clew, we are led to remark that the consequences are of two kinds, those which affect the persons directly engaged in a transaction, and those which affect others beyond those immediately concerned" (p. linked here).

The perception of consequences we do not like can be avoided. For example, the purpose of tobacco-free college campuses is to control and avoid the negative externality that is second-hand smoke. That smoke has killed approximately 2,500,000 nonsmokers since 1964! The consequences of directly transacting with a smoker are steep and can "affect others beyond those immediately concerned." Sound familiar?

Just as Dewey (1927) said, there are two types of consequences: The ones that affect the persons directly engaged with one another and the ones that indirectly affect others. The population of people indirectly affected by your transactions are the people doing their damnedest to avoid you at the grocery store. Like second-hand smoke, COVID-19 is the negative consequence that results from transacting. In other words, COVID-19 is the negative externality that results from maintaining social closeness. While social closeness may not harm you or the other persons directly involved, it could very well harm the weak ties you contact in your neighborhood or in your grocery store check-out line. According to Dewey (1927), it is the public who will bear the brunt of this social closeness:

"The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for" (p. linked here).

But systematically cared for by who? And by what means?

"When indirect consequences are recognized and there is effort to regulate them, something having the traits of a state comes into existence" (p. linked here).

Many states––with mandates particular to their respective publics––are attempting to systematically care for, as in avoid, the negative externality that is viral contagion. The problem, however, is with the individuals who continue to transact. Those individuals are a non-conforming subset of the public. They are the non-adopters who maintain both short and long ties with other members of the public, as they refuse to adopt or take too long to adopt the social distancing mandate.

Not all Means are Created Equal

"Then there arise purposes, plans, measures and means, to secure consequences which are liked and eliminate those which are found obnoxious" (Dewey, 1927, p. linked here).

For every state and local mandate meant to flatten the curve, there are personal means that get in the way. This is to say that not all means are pragmatic means. The public, in its efforts to social distance according to state mandate, is undermined by the personal means that are neither pragmatic nor pragmatically true for everyone involved. Here is the difference:

  • Personal means are the actions that bear out in terms of their benefit to you, but happen at the expense everyone else.

  • Pragmatic means keep ends-in-view in the sense that ends or goals are adjusted when the means of attaining them become too costly.

A personal means of handling COVID-19, for example, is to say that it amounts to "hype." One could only hope that it is "all just hype," but try explaining that to the many thousands of families who have already lost their loved ones. The "hype" mantra is dangerous, and as a personal means, it pays out in terms of social closeness at the expense of everyone else. Another personal means of handling COVID-19 is the excessive procurement of food, toiletries, hand sanitizer, and personal protective equipment (PPE). Your hoarding means may benefit you personally in the short-term, but the rest of the public––who are left with little to no procurements––will suffer in the long-term. The issue is a tragedy of the commons, and it is why we need to keep our personal ends in view.

Evolutionarily Sensible Pragmatic Means

In his book titled This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, David Sloan Wilson addresses the tragedy of commons from the perspective of multi-level selection theory (MLS). Like John Dewey (1910), Wilson believes that we have the tools to wisely manage our evolution as a human species. MLS theory offers insight into the evolutionary processes that will make us more or less successful as a species today, and especially in cases like the current pandemic. Some of the insights garnered from MLS theory are as simple as this:

  • Cooperative groups outcompete selfish groups.

MLS theory tells us that groups composed of selfish individuals are less capable of performing the coordinated acts necessary to survive. Cooperative groups, on the other hand, are composed of givers, not takers, who coordinate around an identity, purpose, and superordinate goal that needs to be accomplished for the sake of survival. MLS theory tells us that in order to survive COVID-19, the public needs to form a whole group identity by which it can establish pragmatic means. Those pragmatic means may come in the form of Elinor Ostrom's core design principles, whereby groups avoid the tragedy of the commons by establishing agreed upon behaviors that are monitored for the benefit of the whole group. Those core design principles establish a sense of fairness and inclusivity in decision-making that is not always felt when following our state mandated calls for social distance. While the public cannot and should not ignore those mandates, they may still be able to supplement them: with a decentralized coordination of individuals who can hold one another accountable and create camaraderie around solving the immediately local problems before them. Doing so may be the difference between a "strong collective response (best case scenario)" and "strong collective response (short-term only)."

MLS theory is one of the many tools that might aid the "The Public" and "its Problems" with flattening the curve. Again, the problem is with the negative externality of transacting with others. As Dewey (1927) said:

"Consequences, in a word, affect large numbers beyond those immediately concerned in the transaction" (p. linked here).

Fortunately, the "power to detect consequences has varied especially with the instrumentalities of knowledge at hand" (Dewey, 1927, p. linked here). Once detected––by epidemiologists, social scientists, and public health experts alike––state and local officials can begin to make the right moves. That is, by establishing pragmatic means over and above the personal means that harm us all. By all pragmatic means, let's mitigate COVID-19.


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