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Human behaviour has been critical in shaping the COVID-19 pandemic, and the actions of individuals, groups, nation states and international bodies all have a role to play in curbing its spread. This means that insights from behavioural, social and health sciences are and will continue to be invaluable throughout the course of the pandemic. In this Focus, we bring together original research and expert viewpoints from a broad spectrum of disciplines that provide insight into the causes, impacts, and mitigation of the pandemic, highlighting how research on individual and collective behaviour can contribute to an effective response.
The COVID-19 pandemic rendered 2020 a year like no other in recent history. Although 2021 starts hopeful—with COVID-19 vaccines already being rolled out in more than 30 countries—the fight against the pandemic is far from over.
Insight into human behaviour is key to understanding both the systemic causes of the COVID-19 pandemic and how we can act to mitigate its impacts. Both now and in its wake, we have the capacity to shape and reshape the world we live in.
There is no business-as-usual during this uniquely challenging time. Here is what we are doing to help the scientific community both in providing much needed evidence to guide policy and in managing the personal impacts of the pandemic on individual researchers.
Suthaharan et al. show that levels of paranoia increased in the general population during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, in association with more erratic belief updating. Government policies also played a role.
This Registered Report presents evidence from 87 countries and regions showing that brief emotion-regulation interventions consistently reduced negative emotions and increased positive emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a pandemic, trust in leaders is affected by how they resolve moral dilemmas. Across 22 countries, leaders’ endorsement of instrumental harm reduced public trust, while endorsement of impartial beneficence increased trust.
Using data-driven epidemiological modelling, Yu et al. estimate that, even with increasing vaccine availability, China will have to maintain stringent non-pharmaceutical interventions for at least a year to prevent new widespread outbreaks of COVID-19.
The implementation of COVID-19 stay-at-home policies was associated with a considerable drop in urban crime in 27 cities across 23 countries. More stringent restrictions over movement in public space were predictive of larger declines in crime.
Merkley and Loewen find that anti-intellectualism (distrust in experts and intellectuals) is linked to COVID-19 (mis)perceptions, compliance with public health directives and information search using survey and experimental data from Canada.
This study introduces a public dataset that finds that school closures in the United States have been more common in schools with lower math scores and higher rates of students from racial minorities, who experience homelessness, and who have lower incomes.
The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) records data on 19 different government COVID-19 policy indicators for over 190 countries. Covering closure and containment, health and economics measures, it creates an evidence base for effective responses.
Vaccination combined with physical distancing can suppress resurgences without relying on stay-at-home restrictions. To achieve herd immunity, cities with a higher population density require more stringent physical distancing measures with longer durations.
Combining mobile tracking data and a survey experiment, Munzert et al. show that Germany’s contact tracing app is underused by those who socially distance less; however, even small cash incentives increased app uptake in the cohort.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, suicide rates in Japan declined by 14% during the initial wave (February to June 2020) but increased by 16% in the second wave (July to October 2020), with a larger increase (37%) among females.
Integrating human mobility and activity data with ground-level measurements and air quality models, Shen et al. find that despite a reduction in outdoor PM2.5 during the COVID-19 quarantine in China, overall population exposure to PM2.5 increased.
Druckman et al. use a two-wave survey fielded before and during the COVID-19 pandemic to study the relationship between affective polarization and issue positions. They find an association between previous out-party animus and COVID-19 policy beliefs, and local context moderates this relationship.
Analysing over 50,000 government interventions in more than 200 countries, Haug et al. find that combinations of softer measures, such as risk communication or those increasing healthcare capacity, can be almost as effective as disruptive lockdowns.
The COVID-19 Real-Time Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool allows individuals to assess risk associated with attending events of different sizes via a real-time, interactive website and helps individuals assess whether this risk is worth taking.
Physical distancing during COVID-19 was more difficult for residents of low-income US neighbourhoods. Using smartphone mobility data, Jay et al. find that days at work, not visits to other locations, explain these disparities and that state policies did not correct them.
Gollwitzer et al. use smartphone mobility tracking to show that US county support for Trump in 2016 was associated with a lower reduction in mobility in March–May 2020, which in turn was associated with higher COVID-19 infection and fatality growth rates in pro-Trump counties.
An analysis of news shared on Twitter estimates the level of infodemic risk associated with COVID-19 across countries. Epidemic spread and infodemic risk co-evolve, with reliable information becoming more dominant as infection rates rise locally.
Using a US state-level Bayesian susceptible, exposed, infectious, removed (SEIR) compartmental model, the authors demonstrate that, in almost all states, doubling rates of contact tracing and testing while also rolling back reopening by 25–50% via social distancing can mitigate the resurgence of COVID-19.
How We Feel is a web and mobile-phone application for collecting de-identified self-reported COVID-19-related data. These data are used to map a diverse set of symptomatic, demographic, exposure and behavioural factors relevant to the ongoing pandemic.
An agent-based model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission shows that testing, contact tracing and household quarantine could keep new COVID-19 waves under control while allowing the reopening of the economy with minimal social-distancing interventions.
Brazil has one of the fastest-growing COVID-19 epidemics in the world. De Souza et al. report epidemiological, demographic and clinical findings for COVID-19 cases in the country during the first 3 months of the epidemic.
The COVID-19 Government Response Event Dataset (CoronaNet v.1.0) compiles real time, publicly available (https://coronanet-project.org) data on policy announcements made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic across the world.
Lopez and Rodo explore post-lockdown scenarios by using a stochastic modified SEIR model, showing that lockdowns should last at least 60 days to avoid a second wave of infection. Social distancing, increasing awareness and personal protective behaviours could replace lockdowns.
Fusing models from epidemiology and network science, Block et al. show how to ease lockdown and slow infection spread by strategic modification of contact through seeking similarity, strengthening communities and repeating interaction in bubbles.
Guan et al. analyse the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on global supply chains. Earlier, stricter and shorter lockdowns can minimize overall losses. A ‘go-slow’ approach to lifting restrictions may reduce overall damages if it avoids the need for further lockdowns.
Forty-three experts highlight some key insights from the social and behavioural sciences for effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic and point out important gaps researchers should move quickly to fill in the coming weeks and months.
Behaviour change is crucial to preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the absence of pharmaceutical interventions. West et al. argue that we urgently need effective interventions to increase adherence to personal protective behaviours.
At the time that COVID-19 began to take hold in India, a group of Indian scientists came together to combat what Reeteka Sud describes as one of the most potent threats: the spread of misinformation fueling the pandemic.
The impact of pandemics is magnified by the coexistence of two contradicting reactions to rare dire risks: panic and the ‘it won’t happen to me’ effect that hastens spread of the disease. We review research that clarifies the conditions that trigger the two biases, and we highlight the potential of gentle rule enforcement policies that can address these problematic conditions.
COVID-19 has not affected all scientists equally. A survey of principal investigators indicates that female scientists, those in the ‘bench sciences’ and, especially, scientists with young children experienced a substantial decline in time devoted to research. This could have important short- and longer-term effects on their careers, which institution leaders and funders need to address carefully.
The scientific community’s response to COVID-19 has resulted in a large volume of research moving through the publication pipeline at extraordinary speed, with a median time from receipt to acceptance of 6 days for journal articles. Although the nature of this emergency warrants accelerated publishing, measures are required to safeguard the integrity of scientific evidence.
The debate over whether autocracies or democracies are better at fighting epidemics is misguided. Under President Xi Jinping’s centralized command, his administration has both succeeded and failed at handling the COVID-19 crisis. While it effectively curbed infections within China after the virus had spread, it failed to stem the outbreak before it went global.
COVID-19 has started to reach Africa, a continent that has in recent decades faced the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic and the Ebola epidemic of 2014–2016. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, talks to Nature Human Behaviour about the African response to COVID-19.
Growth-at-any-cost economics has health costs, a reality the COVID-19 pandemic brings into sharp relief. Governments must manage the tension between economics and health, but they should not stray from their original mandate to protect people. Too much dependence on the private sector weakened pandemic response, argues Susan Erikson.
The stock market provides a view of what investors expect for the future. It is precisely in complex situations such as the COVID-19 outbreak that the prescience of the market is particularly valuable, argues Alexander F. Wagner.
In the current absence of medical treatment and vaccination, the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic can only be brought under control by massive and rapid behaviour change. To achieve this we need to systematically monitor and understand how different individuals perceive risk and what prompts them to act upon it, argues Cornelia Betsch.
The human tendency to impose a single interpretation in ambiguous situations carries huge dangers in addressing COVID-19. We need to search actively for multiple interpretations, and governments need to choose policies that are robust if their preferred theory turns out to be wrong, argues Nick Chater.