We Need an Effective Coronavirus Policy Immediately
Time Perspective Theory can create an effective coronavirus policy.
Posted March 31, 2020
Our colleague Massimo Agnoletti contributed to this post.
The coronavirus is changing daily life in a massive and rapid way, requiring a considerable effort by each one of us to adapt to this new and unprecedented economic and psycho-social scenario.
Specific aspects of Time Perspective Theory are useful for effectively defining individual behaviors and governance policies relating to the management of this new pandemic. Time, with its multiple meanings, is a crucial factor in the management of the coronavirus emergency as this is a bio-psycho-social phenomenon.
The word "coronavirus" refers to the numerous microscopic protein structures found on the virus that resemble a crown. This crown is made up of proteins that bind themselves to cell receptors in the human body, causing viral influence. Literally, and paradoxically, it can be said that the greater the ability of the coronavirus to create such bonds within us, then the greater our collective commitment as the human species must be to invigorate and expand our psycho-social bonds.
Our current emergency is partially due to the combination of three factors:
- The cause of the emergency is a biological agent that is not perceptible to our senses (except through specific technological tools), which has the ability to quickly involve millions of people globally.
- The widespread perception that the behavior and policies adopted by individuals and nations, even other than their own, can directly influence aspects related to their own health (also in terms of survival), quality of life, and the economy.
- Unlike all other emergency situations (earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, etc.) where physical and social cooperation is an encouraged and essential resource, the only strategy currently scientifically shared and recognized as effective in managing the virus requires a physical social distancing or self-quarantine.
Generally, in recent decades, the word quarantine has been used almost exclusively in the IT field to describe the function that makes infected files harmless by protecting the computer's hard disk. But in recent months, the term "quarantine" has regained its original meaning linked to public health issues. Quarantine is the separation and restriction of movement of people who have potentially been exposed to a contagious disease to ascertain if they become unwell, thereby reducing the risk of their infecting others.
Quarantine differs from isolation, as isolation occurs when people who have been diagnosed with a contagious disease are separated from those who are not sick. The psychological distress caused by quarantine can cause unusual distress. For instance, the apprehension of not knowing whether one's own state of health is infected or not and, consequently, the possibility of infecting others.
Quarantine is an effective measure in slowing the spread of disease when applied correctly. It is a tool to be managed that has a limited time duration and a psycho-social cost that should not be underestimated.
The term "quarantine" was used for the first time in Venice, Italy, in the 14th century, to name the formal system adopted by the Venetian government to contain the infectious disease of leprosy (known as the Black Death). Even in the absence of scientific knowledge, the Venetian institutions were successful in their forward-looking strategy aimed at obtaining medium-long-term health benefits for their citizens while renouncing the economic benefits of unrestricted commercial traffic by facing the immediate short-term economic costs. For this reason, the Venetian quarantine strategy represents an excellent historical example of effective governance built around time perspective. This means that a resolute Future Time Perspective (FTP) must be adopted to solve the global health problem we now face.
Time Perspective Theory
Time Perspective is the sector of scientific psychology that studies the mindset each of us has regarding the experiences of our present, past, and future, i.e., how and how much we invest psychologically in terms of these main time categories. The specific time configuration that characterizes each of us personally is linked to a particular cognitive, emotional, and motivational style. This TP profile determines, often in totally unconscious ways, how we make day-to-day choices, our behaviors, ways of living, wellness, health, and the quality of our lives.
The decennial scientific research about TP has shown that individuals, nations, and institutions can be categorized based on their measurable time orientation. Some are more likely to be fatalistic: for example, more prone to underestimate that the viral problem of a neighboring nation can also become a problem for its own nation. Some are more focused on the immediate, present time perspective, hence underestimating the impending dangers, and failing to consider the future consequences of their non-actions. Finally, some are more focused on the future in order to reach their medium or long-term goals by giving up immediate advantages and accepting any current restrictions on their lifestyles.
Time Perspective's operational implications in coronavirus containment policies
Each of these specific time orientations is significantly correlated to behaviors that are particularly critical in the management of our current coronavirus emergency. Some of the factors which are relevant in this pandemic are:
- The perceived risk of our own actions, as well as of the actions of other people
- The perception of how much we are able to significantly influence our own future
- The possibility to procrastinate choices which should be acted on immediately
- To avoid acting impulsively
- To respect scrupulously the decrees of health authorities
- To avoid developing anxiety disorders and excessive fears
Time Perspective knowledge, in practical governance terms, can be helpful in regards to assessing the messages received by the public about institutional emergency information. It can determine if the information is fatalistic, present-focused, or future-oriented. Institutional communication should be more restrictive, detailed, specific, and clear in the case of fatalists or present, hedonistic-oriented people to avoid that the subjective interpretation of this information is used in a functional way to cultivate their fatalistic or present hedonistic propensity.
A clear example of what has just been described is the recent drastic changes in the policies adopted by France, the UK, and Italy. The Italian government, although initially advising the avoidance of unnecessary gatherings, had to be more restrictive in the tolerated behaviors by adding many other specifications. For example, saying that the maximum distance allowed to leave the house on foot is 200 meters, not allowing driving by car except with authorization, and so on.
This further specification in the policy communication adopted was necessary in order to counter the spread of the virus promoted by the unwise behavior of a limited part of citizens who, in fact, put the entire population at risk—even those who had adhered more rigorously to government guidelines. For future local and global political choice, it is necessary to be aware that these strategic communication mistakes have a potential price in terms of human lives and the quality of life of the entire population.
General conclusions relevant for coronavirus emergency management policies
- Governance must take into account the fact that every population includes fatalists and those who are focused on the present; therefore, in order to avoid the costs deriving from a low adherence to quarantine (which is reflected with a potential cost in terms of the health of the entire population), it is necessary to communicate in a clear, detailed, and specific way, consistent over time, shared by all institutional actors.
- It is necessary to strategically try to minimize the costs both deriving from the duration of the quarantine (psycho-social and economic costs) and also deriving from any delay in implementing sufficiently restrictive policies that underestimate the heterogeneity of the time orientation population.
- Given the high contagiousness of the coronavirus, even a small portion of the population that is not adhering to the imposed rules can endanger the rest of the population. For this reason, in the presence of detected cases of people infected with the coronavirus, we think it is better to immediately adopt very restrictive measures.
- Last but not least, considering that TP is a mechanism that acts almost completely unconsciously and automatically, an assessment of the time orientation of national decision-makers would be appropriate in order to promote their more future-oriented solutions.
President Trump is a prime example of an extreme present hedonist, who has publicly minimized the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat and continues to proclaim that it will cease to be a problem in a short, unrealistic amount of time.
We are convinced that in the context of a global collaborative vision of humanity, the knowledge of TP, as well as other knowledge emerged from the coronavirus emergency experienced by the nations most involved, can and should be considered a valuable resource also for those nations that will soon face this disruptive event.
Agnoletti, M., (2020). Il Coronavirus com modello bio-psio-culturale. Rome, IT: Medicale Magazine.
Brooks, S.K., Webster, R.K., et al (2020). The Psychological Impact of Quarantine and How to Reduce it. New York, NY: Lancet.
Stolarski, M., Fieulaine, N., Van Beek, W. (2015). Time Perspective Theory: Review, Research & Application. New York, NY: Springer.
Zimbardo, P., Boyd, J. (2008). The Time Paradox, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Zimbardo, P., Sword, R. (2019). The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. Bandy Lee, ED. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.