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COVID-19: Another Large Example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Significance of Networks

This article, written by a columnist for the Stanford Daily, examines the vitality of cooperation and compromise in relation to the current pandemic by analyzing the implications of social distancing from a game-theory perspective, namely the Prisoner’s Dilemma. 


Cooperation Among State Governments: 


As state-mandated lockdowns have been the most common and organized preventative measures that local governments have taken, analyzing its potency has been an effective way to highlight the importance of communication and mutual cooperation between bordering states and their simultaneous lockdowns. In the article, the author uses California and Arizona as two states whose governments can obtain the maximum social benefit when cooperating with each other, from both an economic and public health stand point. Hypothetically, if both Arizona and California were to keep their restaurants open and not comply with the federal-government’s recommended lockdown, the outcome would be one that may boost each states’s businesses in the short term but cause a massive escalation in Covid cases, which can even hurt businesses in the long-term, as it would cut off a large portion of many restaurants and recreational services’ clients.

If Arizona were to comply with lockdowns but California were to remain active, then California may benefit in the sense that not a lot of people from Arizona would be traveling to California and spreading the virus there; California would primarily only face domestic spreading of the virus. However, because California would not comply, Arizona would face an influx of cases from California, which undermines their efforts of having a lockdown and lowering the spread within the state. However, if both states complied, businesses may face short-term losses, but the overall spread of the virus would be lower in both states, and, assuming that human lives are valued more than short-term business losses, both states would be better off by complying with lock-down policies. 


Compliance from Citizens: 


Similarly to governments, individuals must also comply with one another in order to ensure that the spread of the virus is as minimal as possible, thus obtaining the maximum social benefit. The following image depicts a scenario with two agents who have the option of wearing a mask and not wearing a mask. I assigned values of 0 and 1, respectively, to the hypothetical payoffs of individuals wearing a mask and not wearing a mask; 1 indicates that individuals are less likely to transmit the disease and receive it themselves: 

As illustrated from the matrix above, a pure-strategy Nash-Equilibrium is met only when both individuals cooperate and wear masks. Interestingly, this option not only maximizes society’s overall benefit, but it represents both players’ best responses, which both happen to be their dominant strategies. As studies have shown that wearing a mask helps other people from getting infected more than it helps the individual wearing a mask from getting infected, the matrix above indicates that it is not only imperative for individuals to wear masks for their own sake but for others’ as well. 


This pandemic also illustrates the potency of networks, as it shows how just one person with the disease can cause a cascade of infections if people and governments do not take precautionary measures. 

by Ravin Nanda – rkn36



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