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Home / Opinion / Views /  Can nudge theory help weaken a third covid wave?

The foremost priority of many organizations—from hospitals and public-sector institutions to civil society groups and private enterprises—right now is to ramp up the availability of medical supplies and healthcare infrastructure across the country. This preparation will undeniably be crucial to reduce hospitalizations and mortality if and when a third wave comes.

But the experience of other countries—such as Italy in April 2020 and the UK in January 2021—shows that Sars-Cov-2 can overwhelm even the most well-equipped health systems. Once a wave emerges, it can quickly spiral into chaos. So, initiatives to bolster India’s healthcare infrastructure must be accompanied by actions to reduce the intensity of the wave itself. Two key such actions will be administering vaccines by the million and enforcing covid-appropriate behaviour—specifically masking, social distancing and washing hands—until a substantial share of the population has been inoculated.

However, two obstacles will hinder, and in many ways are already hindering, the execution of these actions: Vaccine hesitancy and lockdown fatigue. Across the world, these two remain especially wicked problems—hard to break down, harder yet to solve.

With limited time on its hand, what India needs is a silver bullet. We believe it could come from behavioural economics—specifically, the nudge theory. Nudges are subtle interventions that help people make better decisions without restricting their choices. Many countries have used them both before and during the pandemic to drive behavioural change at scale.

The UK, for instance, moved from a sign-up to an opt-out process for pension accounts in 2012. This simple change—making the recommended option the default—has so far led to more than 10 million people in the country newly saving for their retirement. Similarly, last year’s ‘Happy Birthday’ singalong nudge is expected to have helped millions wash their hands long enough to make them virus-free.

Nudge units are entities that work with governments to apply behavioural science to public policy. Some of them are now running studies to discover which nudges might help overcome vaccine hesitancy. A recent study in Colombia by the UK’s nudge unit indicated the potential to increase vaccination numbers by 2.4 million—or nearly 5% of that country’s population—if people were sent messages that countered their concerns about vaccine safety or appealed to their deep psychological needs.

While nudges can be dramatically cost-effective—Virgin Atlantic famously spent only about $2,500 on a nudging intervention that helped it save $5.5 million in airline fuel costs over 8 months in 2014 —they need to be intricately designed. Every detail counts: Text, visuals, colours, font size, placement, and communication channel. Take, for instance, text: In the UK, rewording tax-due notifications to tell people that their neighbours pay their taxes on time has helped increase collections by millions of pounds a year. Or consider visuals: McKinsey’s research indicates that images of non-smokers playing with their grandchildren on cigarette packs can deter smokers more effectively than images of damaged lungs. Personalization is key too. To be successful, nudges must effectively speak to the cultural and socioeconomic realities of their target audience.

With India’s sheer size and diversity, harnessing the science of nudging to contain future covid waves will be a herculean exercise. However, a structured and concerted programme could make it viable, even in a short period of time. The project will need to be anchored by an independent team of experts—behavioural economists, neuroscientists, design thinking experts, researchers, digital marketers, etc.—convened by the Centre. Considering time will be of the essence, this team will need to be agile—adding new capabilities and partners as it progresses and adhering to a sprint approach: rapidly prototyping, testing, refining and then deploying the most promising solutions.

Given its scale, the effort would need all hands on deck. Telecom and e-commerce companies could provide a platform to directly connect with large sections of the population; large media spenders could amplify messages; social-sector organizations could work on grassroots activation; influencers could power viral social media outreach; the armed forces could serve as powerful vaccination role models; and India Inc could provide the required tech infrastructure.

If successful, this effort could sow the seeds for the creation of India’s own nudge unit. In the long term, this unit could recommend and implement interventions to solve the many complicated developmental challenges India continues to face.

The possibilities with nudging are endless. But, considering covid’s propensity to upset the best-laid plans and take entire nations by surprise, the time to harness it to curb a third wave is now.

Jaidit Brar & Lalit Bhagia are, respectively, senior partner and senior expert in McKinsey & Co

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