Bureaucrats and economists are usually at ease when they have to make recommendations based on static numbers. They get puzzled when the numbers change dynamically, frequently and across widely dispersed paradigms of economics and politics
There's been enough talk about the pandemic. Repetition of the same Faustian opinions - test more, isolate more, lockdown more, and the catchphrase 'flatten the curve' - has been ringing through all news and social media outlets, as if all these people were trapped for eternity inside one huge echo chamber with no inlet for new ideas or new voices and neither any outlet for the old.
Each seem to be imitating the opinion of the other and breeding a monoculture that is unlikely to yield any nifty methods of dealing with the post-pandemic crisis.
Ever since the imposition of lockdown, people have been robbed off their individual liberties for the good cause of saving lives. However, as individual social and economic needs mount, a shift towards reopening is already underway.
Critics have been vocal about the premature nature, the haphazardness and the suddenness of the reopening process but mostly missed the crucial aspect of it: reopening and removal of government-imposed restrictions places greater responsibility on the individuals; on people who find themselves divided between risking an infection and suffering from a loss of livelihood.
Soon enough, millions of people will have to make a plethora of decisions about how to go back to normalcy, how to reclaim their past normal lives - provided it is still there.
Bureaucrats and economists are usually at ease when they have to make recommendations based on static numbers that claim to ascertain the probable outcomes of a choice. They want to be able to forecast the future.
They get puzzled when the numbers change dynamically, frequently and across widely dispersed paradigms of economics and politics.
The variety of the effect of this pandemic on individual, societal, and national levels and the possibility of resonance for many years to come is proving to be unsettling for the policy designers. Disconcerted, they are all performing policy stunts in haste, out of sync with each other, ill-composed and even in the depth of a national crisis, tainted with corrupt perverse intentions.
What policymakers, bureaucrats, industry leaders often tend to forget is that in this concerto, the people populate the gallery. And as they watch this show, this comedy of errors, a general sense of distrust develops toward anything anchored as the fruit of intellectual thought or government policy.
A look at the condition from behind 'the veil of ignorance' would show that for the people it is now a negotiation between lives and livelihoods - a moral and existential crisis.
How will we navigate this moment? Do we have confidence in ourselves, our governments, and our fellow citizens as we begin to emerge from the confines of our homes?
We're reaching the stage in the crisis when our impending freedom can produce even greater anxiety, because the impetus will now be on us as individuals, not just the state, to do the right thing.
When the threat is external people, people band together because the self is then redefined as the whole community. When the threat starts to recede or the government acts as if it has receded or the individual needs to surmount the communal needs, the collective self-fragments and people behave selfishly once again as individuals.
Loss of livelihoods, loss of the past and uncertainty about the future can make people do the unthinkable.
Vaccines are not in the horizon, herd immunity is uncertain, nobody is in control of the situation and trust is seeping through every crack in the social compact between the state and the people.
The government is gradually shifting to a strong rhetoric to steer the population through this crisis. The idea has been invoked, as far as anyone can guess, to mean a variety of things: sacrifice, reform, solidarity, resourcefulness and productivity.
Such rhetoric might be the appropriate lingua franca to surmount this temporary threat but it should not cause a permanent change in the trajectory of the society; of the people.
This is because the people, with their skin in the game, will respond to government calls. They will go out in the search for livelihoods, will try hard to regain normalcy, will help neighbours from their meagre means whenever they can, and yes, sometimes, even the steadfast, might break the rules. Maybe that is why people vote, people expect to be governed: shunned for misdeeds, forgiven for lapses.
Everyday people are not the intellectuals whose duties end with a well-articulated expression of solidarity or bureaucrats who can always deny responsibility once the wave of time settles them somewhere far from where the action took place.
It is the general people who can never leave the act or stay aloof from it. It is the people choosing livelihoods because they are afraid they will die anyway: either from hunger or from the disease.
Unlike a certain class who love to theorize and engage in false solidarity with the oppressed while leaving no quarter to consolidate their own privileges, the working people do not always crawl under the umbrella of government support as the first clouds gather in the sky.
They brave every threat to earn at least the bread if not the butter. These are the people who love the government and want the government to do better to improve their lives but the government should know, like we do, that love, trust and the likes are rather fragile emotions.
The litany of horrors of broken trust, of lost love between the government and the governed is well within the realm of the possible. The saving grace is that these outcomes are not inevitable: they depend on love, trust, and the likes - well thought out, decisive, pragmatic policy responses.
We might be fragile but not be frail.
The author is founder of Rational Nudge