The biggest damage of COVID-19 pandemic may be caused by us

Arguably, the biggest damage made by the pandemic is the decline in people's trust and morale.

That is the common plot for a horror movie - a group of people get locked in one place. Then something goes wrong, people get suspicious towards each other, then kill each other one by one, only to learn that it was someone's else evil game. Congrats folks - now we can find ourselves living in such movie.

Today in one of the social networks somebody has complained that the cashier at the local shop, who was appearing in his 70s was coughing for 15 seconds. The person complaining was scared that cashier might be spreading COVID-19. The comments were divided. The minority has, rightfully, mentioned that coughing may be as well a symptom of quite common long-term conditions, which pose no threat to the public - like Asthma or Lung Cancer.

The majority though were getting quite critical or even aggressive. People would suggest that those exposing any COVID-like symptoms should be locked in somewhere, some would think about taking matters into their own hands and probably mobbing the shop.

It is getting worse.

"He is not wearing a mask? He must be one of those COVID-sceptics! Bloody bastard" - I bet those who can't wear face-covering for health reasons are already hearing somebody whispering something like this behind their backs. Next thing I think would be to hear people killing each other for not wearing a mask or approaching closer than two meters.

Just before you jump into assumptions here - yes, my family was affected by COVID. Still, I think that the decline in people's trust and morale is more worrying than overcrowded hospitals. Things are not pretty, but that is not the first pandemic the humanity saw, and most likely not the most serious one. In fact, COVID-19 is not considered a High Consequence Infectious Disease [1] (imagine for a second what could have happened if we faced something really serious?). But we know what is causing the disease and we know how the disease is spreading. We are also unlucky because there's literally no simple, harmless or natural way to stop the spread. Instead, we all are forced to lock ourselves in small prisons of our own, slowly going poor, hungry, disoriented, mad, lonely, judgemental and suspicious.

Now, I mentioned that my family was affected by COVID. That's true. And it did come in different forms. Someone in my family got serious COVID case and died. The other - died because she didn't have access to healthcare as everything were prioritised to treat COVID these days. And one also has been laid off and now is struggling to find a job to feed their family - something which is arguably considered less serious than spreading a COVID, but might be having pretty ugly long-term consequences.

I have a hard time following the line 'prioritising lives over economy'. For those who didn't study history or economics - if the economy gets really bad it will also cost lots of very real lives taken by hunger, crime or even war. I saw it myself back in Russia in 1990, where the economy has collapsed - the time when tanks shooting government buildings, people killed in a random shooting, armed gangs storming apartments at nights and killing everyone inside including children for as low as 50 dollars catch or even real wars with genocide cases between different regions of the country was something, you know, usual. I remember a day when I was going to school and someone was robbing a bank located in a building I lived in - I didn't even tell my parents about it as it was not something particularly interesting.

I am lucky not to be in charge. I don't know what is the right way forward. I don't know what would have worse effect - the measures taken to beat the pandemics or the pandemics itself. But I am disgusted and frightened to see what we are all becoming - a bunch of frightened people, not trusting government and authorities, not trusting press, neighbours, fellow citizens or anyone. Confused, judgemental and aggressive.

To the point. I do like gaming theory a lot. In particular, I like two problems: the `Prisoner dilemma` and the `Tragedy of the commons`.

That's the `Prisoner dilemma` description from Wikipedia [2]:
Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The possible outcomes are:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison
  • If A remains silent but B betrays A, A will serve three years in prison and B will be set free
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will serve only one year in prison (on the lesser charge).
You see, if person A doesn't trust person B, person B is in trouble. Similarly, if person A is not trusted - A is up to three years in prison. The mutual lack of trust is what will put them both in prison for three years. However, if they trust each other, they both will benefit. In fact, it was scientifically proven that, in most of the problems like this, the only way to maximise mutual and individual benefit is to establish and respect mutual trust.

We all just like those prisoners - locked in in our houses, having no real way to support and care for each other, shitting bricks after watching yet another news bulletin, which is almost always negative and frightening.

But here's the thing - those horrible things are happing and will happen whether we're frightened by them or not. Believe it or not, if you don't call out on someone not wearing a mask (even if this someone is doing it illegally) or coughing in the shop, most likely you won't put someone in danger. And by wrongly accusing coughing cashier and putting him/her out of job we're not stopping the virus and don't even protect ourselves or loved ones, instead we're creating one more desperate, let down and jobless person, who might as well take a gun and start shooting around, or drive a car into someone's house.

If you think someone is doing something wrong or illegal - call the police, don't start a campaign.

We put ourselves in more danger by turning into selfish, frightened, angry, aggressive and paranoic maniacs. Once the trust is lost it may take years or even decades to rebuild this trust, and more horrible things will happen until the trust is back. If it is ever back.

[1] https://www.scotsman.com/read-this/covid-19-not-considered-high-consequence-infectious-disease-it-still-vital-observe-lockdown-2519188
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma

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