Public response to the coronavirus pandemic forcefully demonstrates the collective power of individual agency. The experience of the early weeks of the pandemic illustrates how government does not always lead in the way that resilience thinking often presumes.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008/09, we have begun to realise that how individuals and groups of people prepare for, and respond to, events can be crucial for the resilience of our economies. The true significance of this is being illustrated in an incredibly powerful manner by the current Covic-19, or coronavirus, pandemic. The present crisis shines a spotlight on the role that human agency, that is the choices that we make as individuals and collectively as a society, can play in shaping the resilience of an economy to economic shocks. The manner in which different actors are responding to the coronavirus epidemic in the UK provides a powerful illustration of the role that agency plays in shaping economic resilience.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Gillian Bristow and I argued that human agency was an important, but underreported consideration in the resilience of economic systems to shocks and crises. Our contention was that human actors, both individuals and organisations, engage in anticipatory behaviour based on their best expectations of the future. Those anticipatory actions, we argued, can have powerful collective consequences that can promote, or constrain, the resilience of economies to economic shocks. Recently, Lucinda Davies has similarly suggested that the privileging of macro-economic assessments of resilience overlooks the powerful role played by the decisions of individual actors. The currently emerging crisis created by the coronavirus illustrates this role of individual agency very clearly.

The official UK Government response to the coronavirus was initially a four-stage plan based on i) containing any cases of coronavirus to limit transmission, then ii) delaying the spread of the virus for as long as possible and, finally, iii) mitigating the effects of an epidemic if, or when, it materialises in the population at large. The fourth element supported ongoing research into possible vaccines or tests for infection. The key element for containment was the advice for individuals to self-isolate if they exhibit signs of coronavirus, particularly those who have been to particular countries where there is a high incidence of cases. The delay phase emphasises that individuals who show any symptoms should self-isolate for 7 days, regardless of whether they had travelled or not.

On the 12th March, the Government announced that the UK was moving from the containment phase to the delay phase. Official messaging was intended to reassure the public that the situation was under control, but also to raise awareness of the severity of the health crisis facing the UK. The Prime Minister, for example, warned the public to expect to lose loved ones before their time. Stressing the scientific credibility of the advice, the NHS emphasised that it has been based on ‘careful modelling’ and is intended to introduce measures that could have a “huge social impact” only when they will be most effective, rather than risk people becoming tired of enforced behavioural changes too early.

Despite official advice, individual actions ran rapidly ahead of government policies. As examples, the Premier League and the English Football League were suspended, major concerts, conferences and exhibitions cancelled and, in Rugby Union, the remaining matches of the Six Nations were postponed. Whilst the government argued that Universities in the UK should remain open, many took the precautionary initiative to deliver teaching through on-line and remote options rather than bring students together in traditional face-to-face lectures. When the government eventually advised against public gatherings and promoted remote home working where possible they were acknowledging what was already prevalent practice.

Individuals similarly act in response to the government’s perceived message of ‘social distancing’ and fears that the official response to the epidemic will eventually see households quarantined for periods of time. Travel, both corporate and personal, has been dramatically reduced; social and leisure activities are reducing and the media reports on ‘panic-buying’ (perceived by others simply as sensible ‘preparation’), with stores running out of many products as some households seek to lay in supplies for a foreseen period of substantial disruption.

Of course, these actions achieve their own momentum, despite the government’s attempts to invoke that war time mantra of ‘stay calm and carry on’. When we see shelves emptying of pasta and rice many will add another bag to their own shopping ‘just in case’. Individuals and households began to practice social distancing well before the government intended these actions to start. Not for these households is there a fear of ‘behavioural fatigue’, which government advisors have been so concerned about. Rather we witness herd-like behaviour in action, with potentially significant economic consequences. Even when agents are aware and reflexive, as in our human society, system-like properties still prevail, exhibiting what Hartzog referred to as ‘perfect Brownian motion’.

As numerous writers have popularly described in recent years, humans exhibit strong ‘herd-like’ instincts where our behaviour is intrinsically influenced by contagion effects. As the governments’ behavioural theorists are now seeing, countering such herd-like behaviour by nudges and suggestions can be immensely challenging. As a society, humans tend to privilege the short-term over the long-term taking a ‘just-in-case’ approach when it comes to the perceived security of their families and loved ones. Where our fears of shortages and economic insecurity are confirmed by what we see around us and the perceptions of what others are doing, the tendency to also stockpile now; to restrict external contacts and activities, and to batten-down the economic hatches is forcefully accentuated.

The collective impact of these individual actions, seemingly taken against the advice of government, is to bring forward the economic implications of the coronavirus epidemic. With airlines and train companies braced for catastrophic falls in passenger numbers, tourism destinations concerned about the effects of low visitor numbers and retail and service industries fearful of the reducing footfall it seems that the resilience of our economies to falling patterns of demand will be tested as much, if not more so, than in the crisis of 2008/09. Rapidly falling stock markets, which have already priced in the potential economic costs presaged by the outbreak, serve to reinforce the message of economic uncertainty and cause households to reduce discretionary spending even further.

The UK’s experience in the initial weeks of the coronavirus epidemic clearly demonstrates the powerful role of individual agency over government policies and action. In the face of an uncertain future, individual actions suggest a preference to secure their own futures rather than rely on government reassurance. The role of individual agency in tipping an economy towards an economic downturn, both by households and firms, is clearly illustrated. What is less evident is whether individual agency might be harnessed as a positive force through which to enhance economic resilience to the coming economic shock. How individual actors choose to act once the full-force of the predicted epidemic hits, and then in its aftermath, will be the true test of the role of agency in promoting the resilience of an economy, or not.

The UK government is already rushing to offer economic reassurance to businesses that are likely to be hard hit by the crisis. It is important that they also consider how to harness the power of the herd, by supporting the collective power of individual agency, if we are to navigate the coming economic shock successfully. The experience of the coming months will surely offer insights as to how this might be achieved, but one thing is for sure: collective confidence that the government is acting wisely and with foresight will be crucial.


Dr. Adrian Healy is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow. All views expressed here are his own.