A surprising finding emerges from observing how different countries, confronted with different conditions and different epidemiological circumstances, have acted against the spread of COVID-19: the same restrictive policies, instead of spreading gradually across the various countries, have been adopted more or less at the same time. The explanation cannot lie only in the fact that a similar problem has been tackled with similar and more or less simultaneous (or more or less preventive) actions. On the subject, a study has been carried out by Prof. Stefan Arora-Jonsson of USI Institute of Management and Organisation together with colleagues from the Linköping University, the Stockholm Ratio Institute and the University of Gothenburg. It shows, through the analysis and modelling of different variables, that the substantial simultaneity is driven by mimicry of what has been decided in other countries, especially those geographically nearest. A "pressure" to act - or to wait - which may have pushed some governments to "close" too soon - or too late.
According to the data collected by the University of Oxford, four of the main "social" measures (properly, "non-pharmaceutical interventions”) spread to about 80% of the countries members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) within two weeks in March. These policies, aimed at fighting the spread of novel coronavirus pandemic, include schools closures, the lockdown of economic activities, cancellation of public events and restrictions on internal mobility.
Considering the heterogeneity of these countries in terms of the capacity of the health system, demography and the degree at which the pandemic has taken hold, the homogeneity of the timing finds only a partial answer in the essential similarity of the situation, or in the willingness to take preventive action.
The influence of the choices made by neighbouring countries
The study by Prof. Arora-Jonsson and colleagues has analysed and modelled the trend of several variables, such as the number of infections, the mortality rate, the availability of hospital beds, the population density, and the timing of restrictive measures in the various countries. The research sought to identify which of these variables were most correlated to the timing with which a specific country adopted the restrictive measures. The study observes that, except for population density, the timing of the actions taken by a given country was more correlated to the number of neighbouring countries that had already implemented restrictive measures, than to the country's specific situation in terms of exposure to COVID-19, demographic structure or retention/potentiality of the health system. In other words, the more neighbouring countries introduced an anti-COVID measure, the faster another country would do the same, all other factors being equal.
Also for the coronavirus pandemic, a mechanism of emulation seems to have been set in motion. This mechanism is already known in governmental decision-making processes and exerts its influence especially in times of crises when the efficacy of a policy is uncertain and the number of earlier adopters serves as a form of "social validation", especially if the decision was made by key countries, or well-reputed countries, or countries that are interconnected or close to each other (geographically or even culturally).
The pressure to emulate
Following the example of other countries can, therefore, be useful to deal with uncertainty and also to increase the degree of acceptance of a measure, especially of impact measures such as those put in place to promote "social distancing" to slow down the spread of COVID-19.
The flip side of the coin is the pressure that is created based on what others do, as in many other aspects of human life. Furthermore, the higher the uncertainty, the greater is the pressure to emulate, especially if a measure is seen as positive. Beyond the actual convenience of applying that measure in the light of the specific situation of one's country, rulers find themselves faced not only with the risk of making mistakes but also with the fear of being accused of negligence or in any case of looking "the laggard".
More democracy, more caution, but also more tendency to be influenced
The research of Prof. Arora-Jonsson and colleagues also examines the correlation between the speed of adoption of specific measures and the degree of the solidity of democratic institutions. Strong democracies are confronted with a shared and participatory decision-making process and are more attentive to the individual sphere and the degree in which a policy is accepted. The research finds confirmation that these countries are more “prudent” to initiate restrictive policies. Based on the variables analysed, however, they are also more likely to feel the pressure and follow the policies of nearby countries.
Too early or too late?
If specific interventions on COVID-19 were indeed taken based more on emulation than on the actual need of a country, it follows that some countries may have locked down too early or too late. In such situations, timing is crucial, given the impact of anti-COVID measures for both the economy and the risk of collapse of the health care system.
The study by Prof. Arora-Jonsson, in this perspective, stimulates reflection by emphasising the impact of emulation on the government as well. Greater awareness of the importance of this factor can help authorities in the decision-making process.
The research by Prof. Arora-Jonnson and colleagues has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the official body of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), one of the most-cited multidisciplinary scientific journals in the world. PNAS has created a section dedicated to collecting particularly significant contributions on COVID-19. The original research is available at https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/08/10/2010625117.