Since 2018 I own a board game called Pandemic. The goal of this cooperative board game is to slow down the spread of four diseases across the globe, while simultaneously finding a cure for each of them.
The main mechanic in Pandemic is the doubling of the ‘amount’ of disease in major cities once an outbreak has started. The amount of infections, abstractly represented with small translucent colored cubes, thus grows exponentially and also spreads to nearby cities. Not taking proper action leads to the board being flooded with disease and effectively losing the game.
Back then it was just that: a game. Now, a year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems as we’ve been sucked in an incarnation of this prophetic board game. Is this the real life or is this just Jumanji? In this post we consider three perspectives on the pandemic: probability, commons and time.
The Black Swan
In 2007 Nassim Nicholas Taleb published his book The Black Swan which focuses on improbable events with a large impact. An example he uses in his book is that of a turkey that gets fed every day of the year, or so it seems to the turkey.
Consider a bright morning on a given day in that year. From the turkey’s perspective it is reasonable to expect to be fed by those friendly humans on this day. After all this was true yesterday, all twenty-three days before it, and on each day of each of the ten preceding months. However, today is November 25th: Thanksgiving, and the turkey will not be fed, but instead served up as dinner.
Notice that there’s no way the turkey could have learned this based on prior experience. Hence from the turkey’s perspective this comes as a complete surprise: a black swan event.
Another black swan is that of an airplane crash. Typically the chance of this happening is very low, much lower than say a road traffic accident. Air travel is generally very safe. However, when something does happen the impact is typically large, and many people are affected. Again: unlikely to happen, but when it does: it’s usually pretty bad.
The term black swan has eurocentric roots. Europeans thought for a long time that black swans simply did not exist. Hence, ‘black swan’ was used as a metaphor for something that could not be. That is: until Dutch explorers actually found black swans during an expedition late in the 17th century in Australia.
The emergence of COVID-19 seems like a black swan event. However, diseases with pandemic potential are not uncommon nor in fact are global health crises. COVID-19 was preceded by MERS and SARS, each spaced approximately ten years apart, causing more localized epidemics. Swine flu, which turned out a bit less severe than anticipated, had its ‘pandemic moment’ a little over a decade ago.
Scientists warned continuously for a pandemic as our interconnected world creates an ideal breeding ground for pathogens. It allows them to surf along people as we surf along the web. Perhaps then COVID-19 is more of a gray swan, than a true black one. After all: based on past data it seems we could have been better prepared. It was a matter of when, not if, a pandemic would come to pass. Now that it has, keeping public health up through collective sacrifice seems hard. Why is that?
The Tragedy of the Commons
Let’s illustrate the tragedy of the commons with a classic example. Let’s say three herders let their cattle graze on a shared pasture. Letting a little more cattle graze there than the pasture can support confers an individual benefit to the overgrazing herder. However, it also damages the pasture, making it less suitable for the cattle of the two remaining herders. Realize that in fact all three herders have a short term incentive to overgraze, which hurts the pasture in the long term.
In the example the pasture is the commons. The tragedy is that since no-one feels responsible for the commons, each individual is incentivized to exploit it, leading to the common’s demise: an overgrazed, dry and even barren pasture. An outcome that is in no one’s long term best interest.
The tragedy of the commons is often applied to situations involving natural resources. For the pasture a possible solution is to divide it into sections, making each herder responsible for a part of it. Due to this privatization, they no longer have an incentive to overgraze their own land. However, this is not the only solution, and not one that can always be applied easily as it involves the construct of physical ownership.
You may be wondering at this point: how does this apply to the COVID-19 pandemic?
The Tragedy of the Pandemic
We could view public health as a commons. Since public health can’t be privatized, there is no other option than to regulate it. Hence, almost all countries in the world have introduced rules intended to uphold public health during the pandemic to curb the spread of COVID-19. For example: reducing mobility, so that people are less likely to come across and infect each other. The more people adhere to the restrictions, the more the spread of disease will slow down. However, most of the restrictions conflict with what people need.
Not being able to meet and see family and friends in larger groups goes against our natural social needs, as is peering to our colleagues predominantly through screens. Hence, individuals are incentivized to cheat and not follow the rules. However, if everyone cheats, just as in our grazing example, the tragedy is that the public health commons will be eroded. Leading to a vast increase in suffering.
Something similar applies to the distribution of the recently developed vaccines against COVID-19. If a country claws its way into the supply of vaccines, it may succeed in quickly vaccinating its own population, optimizing local public health. However, it does so to the detriment of global public health. Thus it comes at the expense of more death in other countries. Something that should make one pause.
Back to regulations: hypothetically, if everyone on earth would self isolate for a week or two, the COVID-19 pandemic would almost certainly extinguish. However, individual incentives make this impossible to do. Thus, the only way out is to effectively cooperate and adhere to the rules. While ensuring these strike the right balance with other social and public health effects. More conformance makes for a lower number of fatalities and permanent health impairments. Even if sticking to the rules does not seem to be in our best short-term interest, it is certainly in our best long-term interest.
A dominant effect of the restrictions is that we spend much more time in our homes. This seems to warp time. Why is that?
During The Pandemic
Being confined to our own homes much more than usual during the pandemic has led to time seeming to pass slowly in the moment. However, ‘thinking back’ on the past year, it feels only like several months have passed, not an entire year. How could that be?
The physical passage of time is distinctly different from the perceived passage of time, which is called chronoception. Chronoception takes two different forms. Firstly, time as it passes in the moment, called prospective time, which is more perceptual. Secondly, time as we reflect back on it, called retrospective time, which is more conceptual. Let’s illustrate this with a thought experiment.
Imagine you’d equip yourself with a camera on your forehead that snaps pictures every fifteen minutes of what you are seeing. When the day is over you discard all the pictures that look the same, keeping only the distinct ones, and put them in an album.
The Time Album
Firstly, consider an exciting, pre-corona, day filled with lots of fun activities. Perhaps meeting with friends, visiting a play, or attending a music festival. Time seems to pass quickly. A lot happened so there are many distinct pictures. Secondly, consider a day during corona where you were confined to your home. Perhaps you made some food, but mostly you spend time in the same rooms. At the end of the day there are few distinct pictures. We’ll call this the boring day.
Let’s say you look back at the exciting and the boring day a week, month or year later. The exciting day album is filled with many pictures, you laugh and flip the pages as you go through it in half an hour. Contrast this with the boring day album, which has few pictures. It feels much more empty, and you go through it in five minutes.
While the exciting filled day went by quickly in the moment (prospectively) the album takes a long time to go through (retrospectively). The reverse it true for the boring empty day, where it seemed to take forever in the moment, but takes little time to skim through afterwards. The pictures are a metaphor for memories. The more distinct memories you make during a span of time, the longer it seems to have lasted when you look back.
Thus: we don’t really remember the wall time, our minds make a simple guesstimate: if there are many distinct memories it probably took longer. Holidays seem to pass by quickly as they occur: lots of things happening distracts us from experiencing time consciously. However, they seem to encompass a much longer period of time when we reflect back on them: so many things happened! This is why this phenomenon is also known as the holiday paradox.
|When / What
|Prospective (in the moment)
|Retrospective (reflecting back on it)
Experiencing the reverse: real boredom, is less common nowadays as there are many available distractions. Faced with little else to do during the pandemic many escape to consumption of media: (on-demand) television, news and social media. These stimulating streams of fleeting information make time go by quickly in the moment. Additionally, looking at the picture album: these pictures of staring into a screen mostly end up looking the same … few memories are created.
This is also called the television paradox. Escapism does not only let time pass fast in the moment, it also seems to have passed fast when we reflect on it later. Essentially this is the worst of both worlds. Importantly, this is not true for all media consumption, but rather for what we do to drive away boredom and feel little connection to.
In the Pandemic board game there are four possible diseases that can spread rapidly across the globe. Besides it being a gameplay element, the number is also an indication. Since pandemics are always on the lure, we should spend more time being better prepared for them.
Pandemic is also a cooperative game. Either all players win, or all of them lose. This implies something significant: as a player optimizing only for your own role does not work. To bring the game to a successful end requires cooperation. Similarly, we need to cooperate in the real world to curb the spread of this disease.
Time passes much more quickly when playing Pandemic. Many unpredictable things can happen, it is a social setting which involves planning and foresight, and there are fictive stakes. Hence, a notable play-through easily forms a distinct memory. Even within the confines of a lockdown, it may be wise to seek enough stimulation, steering away from the television paradox and instead towards the holiday paradox.
This fight against this pandemic is a cooperative game that we can win. After all, we are now better prepared and equipped, able to cooperate in a way no other species can, all the while ensuring that we form meaningful memories of this tougher period in our lives.
- Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.
- Wikipedia (2021). Tragedy of the Commons.
- Stevens. M. (2021). Illusions of Time.
- Wikipedia (2021). Pandemic (Board Game).