Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Sunk by the Flunkies

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 30, 2020 --  

Self-control and social pressure won't be enough to keep America's pandemic at bay.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over the French canal works in Panama 116 years ago, the biggest problem facing the project was not engineering -- it was disease. Tropical Panama was plagued by yellow fever and malaria that killed workers by the thousands. A massive house-to-house intervention to control disease-spreading mosquitoes succeeded in just a few years in eradicating yellow fever and reducing malaria deaths by a factor of ten.1

Contrast the stunning success of health authorities in Panama 116 years ago to the early failure of health authorities control the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. In many sunbelt states like Texas, the reopening of businesses in late May and early June has been followed by a surge in infections that threatens to overwhelm local hospitals.2

In both 1904's Panama and 2020's Texas, the ways to stop the spread of disease were simple and well-known. With malaria, you drain standing water near dwellings, apply larvacide, and kill adult mosquitoes indoors. With the coronavirus, you get everyone to wear a mask, stay 6 feet away from others, and self-isolate if infected. The fundamental difference between the success in Panama in 1904 and the failure in Texas in 2020 is compliance -- by many accounts, Texans are failing to do what is needed to stop the disease.3

Key differences separate Panama's success from Texas' failure. In 1904, the U.S. Government ruled the Canal Zone as a colony, initially with martial law under the Secretary of War. The existing population of the Canal Zone was just a few thousand, and was dwarfed by the masses of imported construction workers. There were no conspiracy theorists refusing to dump out their water containers or denying the existence of disease. Non-compliance, for whatever reason, was simply not an option.

The same isn't true in Texas. Boots on the ground amount to about 3,000 contact tracers4 in a population of 29 million, and those agents don't do behavioral enforcement. Aside from the odd conscientious local business owner, nobody is intervening to tell people to behave. When not faced with some enforcement stop them, many people will engage what is easy and what feels good. What feels good is socializing with friends. What does not feel good is wearing a face mask.

Most humans, Texans or otherwise, have limited capacity for self control. As learned by the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment from 50 years ago, many children will immediately eat one marshmallow rather than delay gratification a few minutes in exchange for two. Longitudinal studies show that children with more ability to delay gratification had more success laster in life5 -- in other words, self-control is to some degree an innate quality that differs between individuals. Those of us who passed at the marshmallow test responsibly wear masks when out and try to maintain distance. The rest of humanity, left to their own devices, relentlessly spreads the disease.

In parts of the world where the Coronavirus pandemic is waning (e.g. East Asia and Europe) it probably isn't because self-control is a more widespread quality. The difference in these areas is more likely enforcement. This might mean social pressure (with tools of like shaming, ostracization, and exclusion) for non-compliance or police enforcement (threats of fines, arrests, etc.) In Wuhan, the Chinese communist police state was able to impose draconian restrictions impossible in the West. And in Europe and East Asia outside China, social pressures are much more important than in the United States.

In places like America and Brazil, the politicization of the pandemic proves a huge impediment to the effectiveness of social pressure. America suffers under its most anti-intellectual president in history, one who stubbornly refuses to wear a mask and cynically fans the flames of doubt and conspiracy theories for political gain. So long as President Trump has the bully pulpit, he will continue to use it to undermine the push for responsible behavior.

Given that he has a strong following of political supporters in states like Texas experiencing rapid community spread of the disease, there is zero chance that social pressures can ever be successful in altering human behavior in in coming months. Even though the population of Trump fanatics and marshmallow test flunkies is a minority of Americans, there are more than enough of them to spread the disease to the rest of us.

This leaves government enforcement as the only option available. Yes, for the near future, masks must be mandatory. Yes, close congregations must be temporarily outlawed. And yes, those who refuse to comply must face consequences. These consequences must be unpleasant enough to scare people into altering their behavior.

Given extreme pressures on police departments in the wake of the George Floyd protests, it is a tough sell to get officers to serve as babysitters for members of the public who refuse to behave. But just as in Panama, somebody must to do the work on the ground to stop the spread of disease. If the police can't be asked to enforce the law to protect the public, then it's high time to form an organization that will.


1. CDC, The Panama Canal, September 15, 2015

2. BBC, Coronavirus: Swift and Dangerous Turn in Texas Cases, Says Governor, June 29, 2020

3. Statesman, Lax Social Distancing, Mask Habits Tied to Coronavirus Surge, Austin Officials Say, June 10, 2020

4. Dallas Business Journal, Texas Needs to at Least Triple its Number of Contact Tracers, According to One Research Model, June 24, 2020

5. Moffit, Terrie et al, A Gradient of Childhood Self-Control Predicts Health, Wealth, and Public Safety, February 15, 2011