Germany’s ongoing failure to organize a swift and efficient COVID-19 vaccine roll-out has dominated media reports in the past weeks. But even if the vaccination campaign were to pick up speed soon, the lack of willingness to get vaccinated among large parts of the population would still stand in the way of herd immunity. In several recent media articles, briq director Armin Falk addresses this problem and discusses possible solutions through the lens of behavioral economics.
As Falk points out, vaccination not only benefits the individual but society as a whole. Each administered shot takes pressure off the health care system, shortens the shutdown of public life, and helps protect members of society who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. This is why getting vaccinated is an act of cooperation and solidarity, as Falk explains in an op-ed for DIE ZEIT, Germany’s leading weekly newspaper. “Anti-vaxxers are free-riders of the worst sort,” he was also quoted in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, one of Germany’s major weekend papers.
Since mandatory vaccination, which would be the most effective way to achieve herd immunity, was ruled out for political reasons in Germany as in most other countries, the question is how to achieve voluntary cooperation. From the perspective of behavioral psychology, people’s willingness to cooperate is strongly influenced by the behavior of others. “We need more media reports on positive vaccination experiences and should do more as a society to celebrate those who get vaccinated,” Falk suggests.
Also, individuals are more likely to cooperate the higher the benefits for themselves and society, and the lower the costs of cooperation. This implies that public awareness about the enormous benefits of the vaccine must be raised, while at the same time red tape surrounding the vaccine roll-out must be cut. Possible measures to promote vaccination, according to Falk, could also include paid leave for employees and free shuttle services to vaccination centers. Another solution that has been found effective in the context of organ donation would be a default mechanism that requires people to actively opt out.
Moreover, lab experiments show that cooperative individuals tend to flock together – also by excluding non-cooperative types. Falk therefore welcomes plans to exclude the unvaccinated from using private-sector services, such as air travel or restaurant visits. “After all, it’s not about granting privileges, it’s about giving back fundamental rights and freedoms,” Falk emphasizes in the German business weekly, WirtschaftsWoche.
“Restore fundamental freedoms for the vaccinated immediately”
He dismisses the argument that unequal treatment on the basis of vaccination would be unfair to those who have not had a chance to get vaccinated. “This would make some people better off without making anyone else worse off. Besides, even the unvaccinated would benefit if public life and the economy are revived again,” he told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, the largest newspaper in the Cologne-Bonn region.
In the same interview, Falk also strongly criticizes the German government’s coronavirus response and public information strategy. From a behavioral perspective, “actively raising expectations time and again, only to disappoint them later, is much worse than just failing to deliver. This causes frustration and destroys trust.” Rather than making explicit promises, policymakers must strike a balance between encouragement and creating the credible impression that everyone is absolutely doing their best.
While other countries have ramped up vaccination with hands-on pragmatism, Germany’s efforts have been hampered by a sluggish bureaucracy and complex decision-making bodies stuck in a “mindset and political timidity that is clearly not crisis-proof.” According to Falk, adopting a more pragmatic, innovative and efficient approach to vaccination and rapid testing is the only chance for policymakers to regain trust and keep people compliant with the continuing coronavirus restrictions.