By Ms. Zehra Aftab and Ms. Fareena N. Malhi
Second COVID-19 infection wave an imminent threat
While Pakistanis are rejoicing the onset of the downward trend in percentage of positive tests of Covid-19 infection, the threat of a second wave is very real, especially with Eid-ul-Azha just round the corner. A small miscalculation at this point can revert the apparent success into a complete disaster. United States is a case in point where, despite the initial downward trend, since July the infection rate has again surged; in fact, this time round it has surpassed the initial peak experienced in April. An early opening of the lockdown and premature easing of restrictions in many states is thought to have played a significant role in this reversal of the trend. Similarly, the second wave can be observed in Iran where the death rate has already surpassed the initial peak witnessed during the first wave.
Optimism Bias Leads to Sub-optimal Behaviour
Pakistan is a nation heavily immersed in ‘Optimism Bias’ i.e. we display unrealistic optimism about our vulnerability to a wide set of negative life outcomes. Formally, optimism bias refers to our tendency to estimate the probability of positive future outcomes as greater than average and the probability of facing negative life events (such as cancer) as less than average. We are, therefore, inherently predisposed to thinking that we are less likely to contract the covid-19 virus than our peers, and this may lead to people unwittingly taking extra risks regarding their health and consequently taking suboptimal decisions – not wearing face-masks and gloves, not washing hands regularly and not abiding by the social distancing recommendations.
The over-confidence and optimism bias that followed the opening of shopping malls before Eid-ul-Fitr, and allowing congregational prayers in mosques (while the rest of the Islamic world was in complete lockdown), has already done a lot of damage. Now, after nearly two months, the Covid-19 infection rate has eventually registered a declining tend, its critical that the government continues its firm stance and remain cognizant of the fact that because of optimism bias good news is more likely to change our beliefs more rapidly than bad news.
Clear and Strict Messaging from the Top
In such an environment this article recommends a two-pronged approach to ensure compliance of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). First, the government needs to work on risk perception: maintain the strict stance on implementation of SOPs and continue with lockdown of hotspots, clear messaging from the top combined with transfer of accurate information. Based on the lessons we learnt a few months ago with regard to ease of restrictions pre- and during Eid-ul-Fitr holidays, it is imperative to remind the public that non-economic gatherings such as family and friends’ get-togethers are extremely harmful and need to be curtailed during this pandemic. A study based on simulations by Harvard University and University of California researchers suggests that non-economic interventions – such as reducing interactions in personal spaces – is expected to be more effective in deterring the spread of the virus and of course has a lower economic impact. Therefore, it is critical that the government continues its firm stance without introducing any mixed signals so that behavior change in terms of taking precautionary measures and following SOPs continues despite the oncoming Eid-ul-Azha and its accompanied tradition of qurbani. This leads us to our second policy recommendation:
Appealing to other-regarding preferences in negotiations with Maulanas
When negotiating with the maulana community the government should appeal to these other-regarding preferences (such as altruism). Eid-ul-Azha is a religious festival and needs to be dealt with sensitively by striking the right chords. Existing experimental literature on Pakistani university/madrassa students suggests that madrassa students are more generous and trusting than their peers and contribute more to the public good as compared to elite and middle-income university students. Here public good is defined as a non-excludable, non-rival good that will benefit the entire community, such as the construction of a road or a bridge and hence, contributing towards such a good suggests the presence of other-regarding preferences. Based on this evidence, today we plead negotiating SOPs for the Eid-ul-Azha congregational prayers and the accompanied qurbani with the mulana community/leadership by appealing to these other-regarding preferences. In this article, we argue that limiting congregational prayers is not sacrilegious because Allah Subhan-a-Tallah prioritized rights of people (Haqooq-ul-Ibad) over His own rights (Haqooq-ul-Allah). Since Pakistan is a predominantly collective society where an individual’s behavior not only reflects on the individual himself, but on the entire family, it is essential to explain to the maulvis that insisting on congregational prayers is selfish and may lead to not only the individual himself contracting the virus but passing it on to one’s family (including vulnerable elderly parents and young children) and even putting his respective community in danger. The government can, therefore, insist on online qurbani and perhaps even suggest that in such an environment, it will be better to give money in charity than to physically slaughter livestock and risk the spread of disease. Consequently, we need to think beyond ourselves and about our community and fellow ummah when deciding whether to say Eid prayers at home or in congregation.
To reiterate, the government needs to be firm in its negotiations with the religious community and avoid sending mixed signals or softening its stance at this time if it wants to avoid another spike in corona cases after this Eid. Evidence confirms that second wave of Covid-19 tends to be worse in severity. Hence, the government must tread sensibly and realize its duty to its people and not succumb to the whims of a small community, no matter how influential. Given that in fact risk preferences are malleable and can change over time policy prescriptions need to be strict and objective to ensure adequate risk perception and compliance into taking precautionary measures even at the occasion of Eid-ul-Azha.
Ms. Zehra Aftab is Faculty Fellow, American University and can be reached at email@example.com
Ms. Fareena N. Malhi is Lecturer, Department of Economics, University of the Punjab and PhD Candidate at American University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.