A public good has characteristics of non-rivalry and non-excludability. This means that once the good is provided, everybody benefits, and if one person benefits it doesn’t reduce the amount available to others.
Public health can be seen as a public good. If you take precautions to remain healthy and not pass on Covid, you benefit from good health, but others also benefit. If you don’t take any precautions, no vaccine, no mask, no social distancing – then you are more likely to catch Covid. But, if you are infected with Covid, it is not just a personal cost. When infected, you could pass it on to others, which causes both health and economic costs to the rest of society.
A vaccine is not a perfect public good – far from it; vaccines are not a magic bullet to improve health. But it does have some elements of the public good. Because if you stay free of covid, everyone else benefits from a lower covid incidence.
Individual choice vs Collective responsibility
A key issue with a public health issue like Covid is that of the dilemma between individual choice vs collective responsibility. An individual may feel ‘it is my body and it should be my choice whether to take a vaccine or wear a mask. An individual may weigh up the personal costs and benefits of vaccines and decide it is not in their interest to take.
However, as John Donne said ‘no man is an island unto himself’ or as an economist put it less prosaically, our decisions have external effects on others. For example, if we decide not to take a vaccine, we are more likely to catch covid (you can still get infected with vaccine, but the probability is lower). But then elderly people whom we come into contact with, may catch it from us. Therefore, the effects of our choice is not just limited to ourself. It has far-reaching effects on health and economic activity. Higher cases may require more people to isolate and not work, or the government may feel some form of lockdown becomes necessary.
The Free rider problem occurs when we seek to gain a benefit without making any contribution. With vaccines, we could argue those who don’t take a vaccine are free-riding on others who are making efforts to reduce Covid incidence in society.
Suppose a vaccine gives you flu-like symptoms for a couple of days (which the Covid Vaccine can do). If you are young and healthy, you may feel the costs of the vaccine are greater than the benefit of taking it. A young person may feel that they will take their chances with Covid, rather than a high probability of some vaccine side-effect.
However, if everyone took the same calculation, vaccine uptake would be very low. Then covid would spread further and cause more serious health costs and deaths in society.
However, if everyone took the vaccine, wore masks and socially distanced, Covid cases would fall dramatically, and we could all benefit from a return to normality, with very low incidences of Covid.
However, if you know everyone else is going to make necessary ‘sacrifices’ of getting vaccines, masks and socially distancing – then there is a temptation to be the free-rider. If you are the only one not to take precautions, you get the best of both worlds – no vaccine side effects, plus a Covid free society.
This is the problem – many people may be tempted to not take vaccines, but hope other people make the necessary sacrifices.
In evaluation, I don’t think most people who refuse a vaccine or wearing of masks feel they are free-riding. They may feel the vaccine is very bad and nobody should take it or they may not be so conscious of the external effects of health choices. One individual out of 60 million may feel that their decision has no discernable effect on the overall stats. And it is true, one individual decision will have only a very marginal impact on the whole of society. But, if you have 20 million people thinking like this, then it does have a big overall effect.
One solution is to allow people to make choices on vaccines. But, if you don’t take vaccines, the government could implement restrictions, e.g. you can not attend nightclubs, you need to pay for frequent testing or if you travel abroad, you have to enter quarantine.