Why can’t People just self-quarantine to Stop the Spread of Coronavirus? There is a Science that Explains this

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Each one of us has a Biological Incentive System (BIS). The BIS is a ‘software’ in our brain that rewards behaviour consistent with our survival and punishes behaviour that threatens our survival.

For instance, food is good for survival, the brain rewards eating with a beautiful sensation of satiation and therefore we desire food. But eating too much is bad for survival, so the brain punishes overeating with pain in the stomach and the foul feeling that accompanies vomiting, and therefore we resent overeating. Starvation too is bad for survival, the brain punishes it with pangs of hunger so that we do not deliberately starve ourselves. Sex is good for survival, the brain rewards it with an orgasm and an ever knocking desire for sex.

Imagine if poison tasted sweet, bruises, sprains, and cuts felt nice; imagine if we desired these things! Imagine if sex felt bad! Few people, if any at all, would be alive today.

The brain has to decide between two options: going out to find food and risk contracting CIVID-19, or take refuge indoors from COVID-19 and risk starvation.

As long as our BIS is up to date, we do not need to be reminded to do things that increase our chances of survival and avoid those that decrease our chances. Our BIS should help us do this. But it does not always because it is not always up to date. For instance, sugary foods are good for our survival, but too much of them is dangerous. Our BIS, however, seems not to have figured this out quite well, it continues to reward eating sugary foods with a sweet sensation in the taste buds.

You will notice that people who are on diet struggle to follow the doctor’s advice. Though their intellect tells them sugary foods are bad for their survival, they still want to take a little. It is not that their intellect is suboptimal but because the intellect does not shape our desires, emotions do. So the intellect may be clear about not wanting sugary foods, but the emotions will cajole us with the anticipation of sweetness. Psychologists call this conflict of desire cognitive dissonance. Sadly, it is not your intellect that wins in discordant desires, it is the emotions. Philosophers call it “weakness of the will: our emotions seduce our intellect.” In fact, the decision will be made outside your awareness, the adaptive unconscious, and your intellect will only be engaging in defensive rationalization.

Now consider COVID-19 and people’s ‘defiance’ to staying indoors. Take any settlement in the country, say Pipeline, or Eastleigh. Aside from the impracticability of physical distance, there is the question of the biological incentive system. The BIS rewards going out with good feelings and punish staying indoors with boredom. So we desire to go out to the streets, and we resent staying indoors for prolonged periods. Our BIS is wired like this because getting out increases our chances of putting food on the table and consequently the chances of survival. Staying indoors, on the other hand, is a recipe for starvation, you hardly earn a living by staying home.

This period of the COVID-19 outbreak is novel. Staying indoors is both good and bad: good in the sense that it reduces your chances of contracting COVID-19; bad in the sense that it increases your chances of starving. Going out too is a coin toss: good in the sense that it increases your chances of eating; bad in the sense that it increases your chances of contracting COVID-19. The brain has to decide between two options: going out to find food and risk contracting CIVID-19, or take refuge indoors from COVID-19 and risk starvation.

Let’s say your intellect takes the first shot. You consider these options in the brain’s dominant verbal system. Starvation is certain if you stay indoors for too long, and death is certain if you starve. On the other hand, contracting COVID-19 if you go out is very likely but not certain, and death too is likely but not certain. The intellect will definitely prefer going out, that is where survival chances remain. The only thing that will make staying indoors desirable is if an external factor is introduced: a guarantee of food to avert starvation if you remain indoors, or certainty of debilitating violence if you go out. In fact, if someone forcefully locks you down, your brain will figure out ways to go around the lockdown, or if that fails, encourage you to confront the enforcer.

How about your emotions, how are they likely to decide? I explained above that the BIS rewards and punishes behaviour according to how it affects our survival. I must add here that the BIS is shaped by our evolution and experiences. For instance, sex feels good because our ancestors who had sex procreated and preserved their generation; hunger feels bad because our ancestors who starved died.

Fortunately, our BIS is encoded with information about hunger and going out: our ancestors who ate survived, those who did not, died; ancestors who went out to hunt or gather food survived, those who did not died. So as I already explained, absent a survival-diminishing threat outdoors, on whether to go out or stay indoors, the BIS will reward the former and punish the latter. So like the elect, the emotions will favor going out over staying indoors.

It is absolutely reasonable and necessary to discourage people from attending social gatherings. But it is absolutely wishful to discourage people who depend on daily wages to stop working.

How will the BIS interpret the COVID-19 threat? Unfortunately, both in evolution and experience, there is little to show that ancestors who stayed indoors had a survival advantage of diseases over those who roamed. The closest correlation is that the sick who stayed indoors had better survival chances, and even that was accompanied by the guarantee of food by their relatives who continued to go out. In other words, our BIS as presently wired hardly rewards staying indoors.

Accordingly, even with the threat of contracting COVID-19, the ‘default’ action is to continue going out.

Do not blame the people of Italy, do not blame the people of US, do not blame the people of UK, do not blame any people that continue to ‘roam’, as GoK puts it. Especially, do not blame the people of Kenya. The COVID-19 threat is novel, our biological incentive system is playing catch up. As long as the choice is between an unknown enemy with no certainty of death (COVID-19) and a known enemy with the certainty of death (starvation), people are bound to act as Kenyans continue to.

All those things that Mutahi Kagwe said about Kenyans’ indiscipline for flouting the advice to self-quarantine are escapist excuses for gov’t’s failure. It is not Kenyans who have failed. It is the government that has failed.

Self-quarantine without the guarantee of food is as a threat to survival as the Coronavirus itself, worse even. It is absolutely reasonable and necessary to discourage people from attending social gatherings. But it is absolutely wishful to discourage people who depend on daily wages to stop working. If this pandemic scores a touchdown in Kenya, we shall not have ourselves to blame but gov’t’s systemic failures.

Our public healthcare system is decrepit. It is also plundered. Our city and town settlements fly on the face of planning. Projects to order them are also plundered. Our revenue is plundered. Competence and talent are relegated to the background. Mwananchi should not take responsibility for the failure to contain the spread of Coronavirus. Those who survive should have as their top priority the overhaul of our present leadership.

As the public, let each one of us do the best we can to limit the virus’ spread. But without forgetting why we are at a disproportionately high risk. If you can, stay indoors. Because you can, keep physical distance, wash your hands, protect the next person by covering your mouth. And keep in mind that if we survive, it is despite, not because of, government.

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