Background: The word ‘pandemic’ conjures dystopian images of bodies stacked in the streets and societies on the brink of collapse. Despite this frightening picture, denialism and noncompliance with public health measures are common in the historical record, for example during the 1918 Influenza pandemic or the 2015 Ebola epidemic. The unique characteristics of SARS-CoV-2—its high basic reproduction number (R0), time-limited natural immunity and considerable potential for asymptomatic spread—exacerbate the public health repercussions of noncompliance with interventions (such as vaccines and masks) to limit disease transmission. Our work explores the rationality and impact of noncompliance with COVID-19 disease control measures.
Methods: In this work, we used game theory to explore when noncompliance confers a perceived benefit to individuals. We then used epidemiological modeling to predict the impact of noncompliance on control of COVID-19, demonstrating that the presence of a noncompliant subpopulation prevents suppression of disease spread.
Results: Our modeling demonstrating that noncompliance is a Nash equilibrium under a broad set of conditions, and that the existence of a noncompliant population can result in extensive endemic disease in the long-term after a return to pre-pandemic social and economic activity. Endemic disease poses a threat for both compliant and noncompliant individuals; all community members are protected if complete suppression is achieved, which is only possible with a high degree of compliance. For interventions that are highly effective at preventing disease spread, however, the consequences of noncompliance are borne disproportionately by noncompliant individuals.
Conclusions: In sum, our work demonstrates the limits of free-market approaches to compliance with disease control measures during a pandemic. The act of noncompliance with disease intervention measures creates a negative externality, rendering COVID-19 disease control ineffective in the short term and making complete suppression impossible in the long term. Our work underscores the importance of developing effective strategies for prophylaxis through public health measures aimed at complete suppression and the need to focus on compliance at a population level.