Guest Column: The prisoner's dilemma-T.P. or not T.P.

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It was nearly three years ago that norovirus ripped through Yolo County. I remember the year because it lines up with my wedding anniversary. And I remember that because my husband and I both got it the Saturday before we said our I do’s. If we had come down with norovirus on our wedding day, our guests would have gone to an expensive party while we stayed home and prayed for death. There is no way to fake it til you make it through norovirus.  In Yolo County we washed our hands more, bleached surfaces and stayed home when we were sick.  We didn’t hoard toilet paper, which is weird. Or at least, it’s weird that people are doing so in the face of COVID-19, which is a respiratory illness, but didn’t when faced with a bear of a stomach bug. To put it as delicately as possible, people with norovirus have a heightened need for toilet paper, and they often can’t leave their house. Not because they have been quarantined, but because they can’t go anywhere that isn’t 30 seconds from a bathroom.   I don’t get it, but I also do. Toilet paper was at the top of my list when I did one last Costco run at 38 weeks pregnant. We got the largest pack they had, and then stayed home with a newborn for nearly three months. We’ve hardly made a dent in our stash. Now I’ve heard that a nearby Costco is limiting customers to only two packs at once.  Charmin better be saving their coronavirus profits, because a lot of people won’t be adding toilet paper to their grocery list for another year. “Mummy” might be the most popular Halloween costume of 2020.  Even though officials are recommending against stockpiling nonfood items like this, shoppers keep doing it. We are faced with a kind of prisoner’s dilemma whenever they step in the grocery store.  Briefly, the prisoner’s dilemma is a thought experiment in which a criminal in a private interrogation room can either stay quiet, confess, or blame their accomplice, who is in the other interrogation room. If both stay quiet, they get a lighter sentence. If one prisoner stays quiet and the other rats him out, the quiet one is going to prison for a long time. If they both turn on each other, they both end up behind bars for a significant sentence.  The question is whether people will look out for themselves or others if they don’t know what other people are doing. Even if you weren’t planning to buy enough toilet paper to supply a mischievous high school senior on Homecoming Week, you get to the store and the aisles are bare. You didn’t plan to become a toilet paper hoarder, but everyone else did, and now you’re out of luck. If everyone bought a normal amount of toilet paper maybe some people would have run out while quarantined at home for 14 days, but most people would be fine. The best outcome for the individual is to have already cleaned out Costco’s stock of toilet paper, securing it for themselves and their family. Then, when society collapses, they will be well situated in what we can only assume will be our new toilet paper based economy.   I go back to that month when norovirus claimed Yolo County. I don’t remember empty grocery store shelves and black market hand sanitizer.  But that wasn’t a global pandemic. We only needed to trust the people in Yolo County to practice good hygiene, stay home when they were sick and refrain from buying household staples with the mentality of a doomsday prepper.    Now people are thinking on a larger scale. Put yourself in the place of the prisoner, trying to guess what his counterpart in the other room is going to do. Do you take the bet that they stay quiet, or do you pin the blame on them? Now imagine that instead of betting on one person’s actions, it’s 10 people. Would you bet that 10 out of 10 people would act against their own best interest for the benefit of the group?  With COVID-19 we don’t just need to trust our neighbors to consider the collective good, we are being asked to trust people all over the world to forgo travel, stay indoors and wash their hands. We are asked to trust all levels of government to make tough calls and act quickly.  It’s enough to stretch our trust to the breaking point.  Deep down our minds still function as if we were living in small groups. Intellectually we know that the people living outside of our circles of friends and family are probably a lot like us. They also care about the vulnerable people in their lives and worry about the future. But emotionally, we believe that those people are “the other,” “a threat” and “definitely going to buy all of the toilet paper.” If you can this week, think about ways to expand your circle a little further. Call someone who is staying home and see how they’re doing. Check in on people who might not have the resources to buy several weeks worth of groceries. Think of the vulnerable people in your community and limit travel.  And, for the love of germ theory, wash your hands.]]>

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