the prisoner’s dilemma in 2020

This is a post whose content I have been meditating on, for a long time, since I last wrote about my concerns about responses to SARS-CoV-2 in March.  For years, I’ve taught about the classic prisoner’s dilemma in the context of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons book.  Ostrom’s book draws on collectives to explain how such groups collectively self-manage and regulate common resource pools like fisheries and grazing grounds; her work offers some insights into how to tackle shared, contemporary issues.  For example, many of us have concerns about how to combat environmental degradation, where the longterm outlook is often hard to forecast against shortterm gains and externalities generated by corporations. 

With SARS-CoV-2’s worldwide spread, the prisoner’s dilemma is now evident in everyday decisions on the part of individual people, organizations, and governments. These decisions, in aggregate, have both immediate and longterm consequences for all:

Scenario 1Both parties defect: Most or all persons fail to wear masks properly, socially distance to the fullest extent possible, and/or live and work with conditions that promote safer interpersonal contact (i.e. gets tested with short turn-around results, cooperates with contact tracing, spends time outdoors or indoors with open windows, enhanced air circulation, etc.).  The outcome of not reducing risky activities manifests in collectively worse outcomes for everyone – societies experience more illnesses, more need for hospitalizations at the same time (which hospitals cannot handle given staffing and equipment capacity), more deaths, more not-yet-know longterm effects, more uncertainty, etc. 

Scenario 2One party defects while the other party cooperates: One party refuses to do social distancing, mask usage, etc. while the other does.  The outcome is still worse for everyone, but less so compared with when both parties defect.  

Scenario 3Both parties cooperate: Everyone engages in proper mask wearing, social distancing, regular, rapid testing, etc.  These actions hopefully push transmission down to few or no cases.  This is the most ideal outcome from a collective health standpoint.

In NYC, my students and their communities have learned the hard way about the consequences of the prisoner’s dilemma, especially given the failures of various elected leaders and organizations to properly conceptualize and communicate risk.  I tried my best, from the beginning of the spring semester, to prepare my undergrad and grad students, my household, and those around me for what I thought was likely to happen, based on what I had read about China and recommendations from qualified experts.  For example, I told students to start identifying neighborhood businesses and organizations that they might have to patronize, should they no longer be able to travel.  If they lived in the dorms, I encouraged them to think through plans for returning home.  I asked students to test working online with their devices.  I intensified my teaching of decentralized organizing techniques, including mutual aid.  I spent time in multiple meetings, explaining to administrators my preparatory steps for moving online, and drafting and sending emails asking decision-makers at various organizations to take steps to protect communities.  I contemplated what to do if I got incapacitated.

Here’s what we experienced, healthwise, in the spring 2020:

  • a death of the senior-most colleague in my department
  • a student, who had been ill himself, learned of a death in his extended family, during groupwork in my class
  • students and their family members hospitalized
  • students and CUNY colleagues suspected they had COVID-19 symptoms (headaches, fevers, cough) but couldn’t get tested for COVID-19
  • one student’s entire family got sick, possibly from their child’s school which had teachers who had been hospitalized. This student almost died due to an nearly too late diagnosed complication of COVID-19.
  • death of a parent at my child’s school

My CUNY colleagues reported similar or worse experiences; for example, one undergraduate lost both parents to COVID-19.  Everyday during our lockdown, every passing siren was an auditory reminder of how failed states can deplete collective capacity to coordinate effective action.

When I talk with academic colleagues and my research communities across NYC and the US, they have reported voluntarily following the recommendations of experts who have researched public health, indoor air quality, and aerosol diseases.  Most are at organizations that have allowed them to work from home or outdoors.  They have chosen to reduce exposure and transmission risks, for example, by wearing masks and replacing riskier activities, such as dining and socializing indoors with those outside of their households, with other kinds of activities like virtual meetings, walking together outdoors while masked, etc.  Some do it out of concerns for their own health; others are concerned for those around them.    

When we talk about how life has changed and will continue to change, we acknowledge that we have the means and privilege to do this, and that we do this in order to collectively reduce risks for those who cannot.  Accepting such changes has not always been easy, especially when we are unsure when we can next gather with loved ones safely, across long physical distances.  Each day feels like the 1990s movie Groundhog Day, but with deaths, illness, and grief.  The temptation to individually defect, in an attempt to return to the 2019 “normal,” is high.  That said, mutual cooperation is much easier if we think of our interdependent futures, as well as our connections with prior and upcoming generations.

In the absence of coordinated state action, informal and formal organizations can step in. Organizations like schools and universities can offer decision-making guides to their members about the impact of participating in get-togethers and similar “individual decisions” upon surrounding communities. Organizations can support people in collecting data that might not otherwise be deemed by gatekeepers as worthy of inclusion. With these steps, people can learn about possible risks to their community, and take actions that might eventually generate a collective best, rather than worst, outcome for all.


Written by katherinechen

October 7, 2020 at 6:35 pm

Posted in uncategorized

Tagged with ,

%d bloggers like this: