Coronavirus and the Tragedy of the Commons

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We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

The Coronavirus presents a classic case of the Tragedy of Commons. If some of us stay at home, we may flatten the curve. However, the greater portion of the population may not have access to food and other necessities if they do. Staying at home would maximize the public good, but it does not align with self-interest. Whether those interests are valid, like working to put food on the table, or plain selfish like wanting to party, we have a serious problem on our hands.

We can assume that everyone will do their part, but self-interest will always win the day. If everyone had done their part, we could have nipped the virus in the bud in under a month. But inequalities in income distribution, attitudes about freedom, corrupt governments, and a load of misinformation have made it impossible.

The WHO warned that we could be dealing with the virus for another two years. Here in Kenya, we’ve only just rolled out mass testing, are nowhere near our peak so we can start to flatten the curve, yet there is talk of relaxing the curfew and cessation of movement.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m over the cessation already. But the rest of the world has been dealing with this pandemic since January and has tested hundreds of thousands of people. So, while they may be ready, we might not exactly be.

In the tragedy of the commons, philosopher Garret Hardin gives the example of a bunch of herdsmen grazing on a common piece of land. If the land is not overpopulated, each herdsman can graze their cattle without much harm to the land. Nonetheless, one rancher will increase their capacity because they have the resources and believe all others will stick to a minimal number. This herdsman will enjoy significant profits from owning many cattle. However, as they add more cattle, there will be less and less land to graze on, ultimately leading to overconsumption and a collective disadvantage to all of the herdsmen.

The role of the government, according to this philosophy, is to facilitate the equal distribution of resources, because it cannot be assumed that everyone will act in a manner that benefits the larger population.

In an ideal situation, the government should be able to control the virus through a variety of measures, such as food and cash incentives, as well as free testing for vulnerable populations, wage subsidies and tax relief for businesses, amongst many others. Nonetheless, even the government’s efforts have nothing on people’s self-interest. Children of the powerful will still go to parties and use essential services to escape the curfew. Selfish individuals will plunder public resources set aside to deal with the pandemic, without shame or guilt. It doesn’t help that the government is choke-full of such people.

COVID-19 came to us as a disease of the moderately-able, who can afford to fly places from time to time, whether for business or pleasure. In no time, it became everyone’s disease because self-interest prevailed, and self-quarantine was a suggestion they weren’t too eager to embrace. We had a Deputy Governor attending parties and widling, knowing full well he should have quarantined first.

Soon enough, it became a problem for the masses—quarantine at your own costs. You must buy and wear masks at all times. Do not wear one mask for too long. The government cannot give you free masks—police brutality for breaking curfew. The government has no money to give and other stories that only make it difficult for the “common man” to survive this virus, whether health or economic-wise.

As the Coronavirus does its rounds and people’s money-producing endeavors are strained further, there will likely be higher crime rates. Unemployment and the cost of living will probably go up, and stocks will crash. Failure to take care of the needs of everyone will eventually worsen conditions for everyone, even on a global scale- ergo, the tragedy of the commons.

I reckon, however, there is still a chance to show up for each other. Pull resources to help the vulnerable afford the economic costs of staying at home. If you can afford it, stay at home. If you can’t, wash your hands, wear your masks, keep your distance. The sun will shine sometime.

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