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Guest op-ed: It is time for the unvaccinated to be incentivized and nudged

By Vijay Mathur - | Sep 10, 2021

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Vijay Mathur

Despite the emergence of the more contagious and lethal delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, many stubborn people in the U.S. and Utah are guided by their own selfish view of freedom of choice to remain unvaccinated. As I mentioned in my commentary on this issue in the Standard-Examiner on July 20, this behavior does not fit the usual assumption of rationality that requires deliberate, consistent and logical behavior.

In that opinion piece, I outlined some of the explanations provided by professor Richard Thaler in his book “Misbehaving.” Peoples’ decisions are influenced by others who are close to them and by those who influence their identities, the opportunity cost of their decisions, the cognitive intelligence to decipher factual information from misinformation, the effect of leaders they trust, as well as some other psychological factors discussed by professor Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

Perhaps unvaccinated people have not yet reached the tipping point. Some of them might do so if someone in their family becomes very sick or dies, or a neighbor whom they trust becomes seriously ill. Malcolm Gladwell argues in “Tipping Point” that all epidemics have tipping points. In the case of the delta variant virus and the probability of development of other, more complex and virulent variants, the country’s health care system and the economy as a whole are facing perilous times. Therefore, it is in the national interest to convince a significant proportion of Americans to get vaccinated for the virus in order to develop herd immunity.

However, even a substantial increase in infections and more deaths of young and old have not persuaded 52.8% of the population of Utah to get fully vaccinated (Becker’s Hospital Review, Aug. 30). Based upon CDC tracker data for Aug. 9, Becker’s Hospital Review also reports that 47.7% of the U.S. population is not fully vaccinated. This data reveals that we are facing desperate times now and perhaps in the future.

Choice research shows that most people systematically make wrong choices that are not in their best interest. They have what Thaler and Cass Sunstein call “status quo bias” in their book “Nudge.” It is time to nudge naysayers who are still zealous defenders of maintaining their freedom of choice and liberty, even though their freedom of choice impinges upon others’ freedom of choice of good health and freedom from illness. John Locke (1632-1704) an English philosopher and ardent supporter of freedom and liberty as natural rights, argued for equality in freedom and liberty and doing no harm to others. He also argued that some freedoms are lost as part of the social contract with governments responsible for providing security and services.

In any event, nudging is a default mechanism. Thaler and Sunstein state that nudging influences choices that will make people better off “as judged by themselves.” Nudging is not a mandate. It retains and even expands freedom of choice. People also respond to incentives, as when people were offered monetary rewards for vaccination. Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. incentivized its workers to get vaccinated by offering a bonus of at least $1,500. It saved costs due to fewer turnovers. Even the federal government is providing incentives. Some unvaccinated people, who are procrastinating, may respond and find time to get the vaccination. Incentives and nudges are effective persuasion mechanisms.

A good example of nudging and incentives was reported in The New York Times (Aug. 27). Starting Nov. 1, workers at Delta Air Lines could choose to remain unvaccinated but have to agree to: 1) wear masks indoors, 2) get tested weekly, 3) lose protection of wages lost while quarantining and 4) pay $200 more per month for health insurance. This keeps workers’ freedom of choice to remain unvaccinated. They do not lose their jobs. Goldman Sachs requires vaccination status from its employees only as a nudging device.

Other examples that keep the freedom of choice of being unvaccinated are the proof of vaccination required by some universities, restaurants and hotels. Many hospitals are now charging more to unvaccinated people even when they are insured. People who want the freedom to remain unvaccinated do not have to choose those universities, restaurants and hotels and should be willing to pay for their freedom when it harms others of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Mathur is a former chairman and professor in the Economics Department at Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. He resides in Ogden.


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