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Endogenous social distancing and its underappreciated impact on the epidemic curve

Social distancing is an effective strategy to mitigate the impact of infectious diseases. If sick or healthy, or both, predominantly socially distance, the epidemic curve flattens. Contact reductions may occur for different reasons during a pandemic including health-related mobility loss (severity of symptoms), duty of care for a member of a high-risk group, and forced quarantine. Other decisions to reduce contacts are of a more voluntary nature. In particular, sick people reduce contacts consciously to avoid infecting others, and healthy individuals reduce contacts in order to stay healthy.

We use game theory to formalize the interaction of voluntary social distancing in a partially infected population. This improves the behavioral micro-foundations of epidemiological models, and predicts differential social distancing rates dependent on health status. The model’s key predictions in terms of comparative statics are derived, which concern changes and interactions between social distancing behaviors of sick and healthy. We fit the relevant parameters for endogenous social distancing to an epidemiological model with evidence from influenza waves to provide a benchmark for an epidemic curve with endogenous social distancing.

Our results suggest that spreading similar in peak and case numbers to what partial immobilization of the population produces, yet quicker to pass, could occur endogenously. Going forward, eventual social distancing orders and lockdown policies should be benchmarked against more realistic epidemic models that take endogenous social distancing into account, rather than be driven by static, and therefore unrealistic, estimates for social mixing that intrinsically overestimate spreading.


M. Gosak, M. Kraemer, H. Nax, M. Perc, B. Pradelski, Endogenous social distancing and its underappreciated impact on the epidemic curve, Scientific Reports 11 (2021) 3093


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