A recent research conducted by the European School of Management and Technology – ESMT Berlin, a UNAI member institution in Germany, and the University of Texas at Dallas – UTD (United States), examined how governments inform and communicate to the public about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The team of researchers was composed of Professor Francis de Véricourt, Director of the Center for Decisions, Models and Data (DMD-Center) at ESMT Berlin, Huseyin Gurkan, Assistant Professor of Management Science at ESMT Berlin, and Shouqiang Wang, Associate Professor of Operations Management at UTD.

The study found that the more unequal a disease’s economic impact is on a population, the less its government may overestimate the epidemic severity. The study predicts that governments are more likely to downplay the severity of an epidemic if they prefer to prioritize a healthy economy over public health. The opposite holds for governments that prioritize a healthy population over the economy, as they are more likely to overestimate the severity of the disease. In this sense, the efficacy of restrictions relies on individual compliance, which political leaders influence by disseminating information.

Depending on their objective and the population’s perception of the risk, political leaders may have incentives not to be fully transparent and even downplay or overestimate the severity of the disease. The researchers developed a framework to see how policymakers may seek to induce public compliance through communication strategies. They were particularly interested in identifying when distorting the severity of the disease, by either overestimating or downplaying it, could be beneficial. Informing in this context is challenging because individuals strike the trade-off between their wealth and health differently.

This can cause discrepancies in compliance to confinement measures. Governments are further faced with the task of ensuring maximum compliance while maintaining the stability of the economy. And because governments may have different priority levels for these, political leaders sometimes have an incentive to misrepresent the information they have. With his in mind, the research team developed a game theory model that accounted for the health-economy trade-off faced by governments and individuals, the diversity of socioeconomic status within the population, and the individual impact of social distancing.

The framework accounts for the externalities that each individual decision to comply or not creates for the rest of the population. The more individuals isolate themselves, the less exposed the population is, which decreases health risks for everyone. This, however, decreases the individual incentive to remain confined and thus gives rise to other challenges. The findings of this study are pertinent in identifying the strategies governments may take to achieve their goals in ensuring massive compliance to prevention measures, even if these may be more focused on the economy as opposed to public health.

Economic considerations and priorities can actually have a significant impact on how the information is presented to the public and made available to it. “The communication strategy of a government is incredibly important in ensuring that the citizens comply with whichever approach they take in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says de Véricourt. Along those lines, the findings of the study “suggest that governments should have fully transparent information policies if they value the economy and public health equally and are in a balancing act between the two,” explains Gurkan.