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Reflections: Leaders’ speech and risky behaviour during a pandemic

Dr Tiago Cavalcanti of the Faculty of Economics, working with colleagues Dr Nicolás Ajzenman and Dr Daniel da Mata, considers the influence of political leaders on people’s behaviour.

During times of crisis, such as the current one related to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders can have a disproportionate influence on people’s behaviour. Asymmetric information between governments and citizens is important even in normal times, but recommendation on prevention practices becomes far more consequential during a public health emergency. Citizens might ignore best practice from a medical point of view but, more importantly, they are also likely to be unaware of the extent of the spread of the disease in their areas, ignore negative externalities in the transmission of the virus and be uninformed on dynamic development of the crisis.

A political leader’s recommendations on preventive behavior are taken seriously by followers, regardless of how scientifically based the statements are. For instance, after President Trump suggested that disinfectant could be injected as a remedy against coronavirus (Vox 2020b), there was a rise in the interest (and in due course purchasing) of disinfectant (Vox 2020a)).

Dr Tiago Cavalcanti

While most countries have, at some point, implemented non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), such as quarantine or school closures, the public speeches and narratives of leaders have been heterogeneous. At one extreme, many heads of states have been emphatic in their fight against the virus, such as France’s Prime Minister Macron, who declared ‘a war against COVID-19. On the other extreme, many others – such as President Trump in the United States and President Bolsonaro in Brazil – have forcefully minimized the consequences of the virus and questioned the need to implement or extend NPIs.

The effect of denial: evidence from Brazil

The context of Brazil provides a unique opportunity to explore the effects of a leader’s action and public speech on citizens’ preventive and risky behavior. Brazil is a polarized country in which the President has an almost equal level of strong approval and strong disapproval. Bolsonaro has encouraged people to go out and has made appearances in stores, markets and joined rallies on the streets contradicting his own health ministry and sub-national social distancing measures implemented in almost every state, while dismissing the effects of the virus as ‘just a little dose of flu’. His behaviour was so controversial that it featured in dozens of international media outlets, including in The Economist (‘BolsoNero: Brazil’s president fiddles as a pandemic looms’),and The New York Times (‘Bolsonaro, Isolated and Defiant, Dismisses Coronavirus Threat to Brazil’. ),

Now, the question is: were Bolsonaro’s words powerful enough to have an effect on social distancing in a scenario of growing contagion and NPIs implemented by subnational governments? In a new working paper (Ajzenman et al., 2020), we address this question by combining electoral data and granular geo-localized mobile phone data  from 60 million anonymous devices in Brazil. We use a social distancing index at the municipality-day level based on the proportion of individuals who left their homes during a given day.

Figure 1 shows the map of Brazil and the social distancing index for all municipalities on Tuesday 4 February 2020, and on Tuesday 7 April 2020. Social distancing has risen nationally, but the changes were not homogeneous. Social distancing rose in some municipalities more than in others. The mean of the social distancing index for the total period is 0.37 (0.25 in February, 0.41 in March and 0.53 in the first two weeks of April). We argue below that these differences were far from random.

Figure 1: Social distance index in Brazil on 4 February and 7 April.

In our work, we document a significant effect on social distancing among the pro-Bolsonaro municipalities, those in which he obtained more than 50% of the votes in the first round of the 2018 presidential election, relative to other municipalities. Results are shown in Figure 2. All leads, except one (t = -9), are indistinguishable from zero.

Bolsonaro’s words and actions have had stronger impact on relaxing social distancing in the municipalities where he had stronger support in the 2018 election relative to those where his support was weaker. For instance, our estimation indicates that after Bolsonaro’s controversial televised pronouncement of 24 March, in which he called for schools to reopen nationwide, criticized Brazilian media for too much reporting on the pandemic in Italy  and suggested he would only get ‘a little flu’ at worst from COVID-19 – approximately 711,659-1,037,000 more individuals (0.34-0.49% of Brazil’s population) left their home in each of the ten days following this speech. In other words, without his message on 24 March there would have been about a million people less on the streets from 25 March to 5 April. Our results show that the effects are stronger when media presence and internet penetration in the municipalities are stronger.

Figure 2: Average effect on social distancing. Treatment: Municipalities in which Bolsonaro had at least 50% of the votes in the first round of the 2018 election.

Our results are consistent with recent findings showing that compliance with social distancing policies is affected by partisan divides, that government recommendations are more or less obeyed depending on the political alignment with the citizens, and the crucial role of opinion leaders (such as TV hosts) in spreading prevention or anti-prevention messages citizens.

Whether it is by reducing information asymmetries or by setting a social norm, leaders’ examples and words can drive behavioral change among citizens, on top and above incentives and institutions. Political leaders’ actions and speeches are important tools for shaping people’s beliefs and affecting their behavior, even during a pandemic.

You can read all the Reflections by Trinity Fellows. 

Dr Nicolás Ajzenman and Dr Daniel da Mata are affiliated to the Sao Paulo School of Economics – FGV

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