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The Tragedy of the Commons; Pandemic Version

This article was written peak 2020 pandemic.


I read a brilliant article in 2020 on the Open Democracy website about how the tragedy of the commons could be happening in Italy with the lifting of the lockdown. Halfway through the article, my mind raced back to situations about the rapid spread of the virus in Sweden, where I live, and Nigeria, where I am from. I also recall the many conversations I have had with people who will justify why they should not be wearing any mask because as one said she was very healthy (me laughing and shaking my head writing this). How odd I felt many times going out with a mask to places in Uppsala or Stockholm where many people do not wear masks. (Whether it is a personal choice or not, that is another argument entirely).



The Tragedy of the Commons which became popular after an article by Garrett Hardin in 1968, describes common resource use in a community and the rationality of each man to maximize personal interest in using a shared-resource system (a common good), eventually depleting the resource and leaving everyone at a loss because of that collective individual actions. Even though the term goes back in time to 1833 in an essay written by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, there have been countless articles written for and against it. The concept is also backed by the idea of the rational man in economics, Homo economicus, who is always out to maximize utility or benefit from everything he does. This is not an economics essay but with all that is happening it is very clear the idea behind the rational man screams out loud. As much as we want to believe we are not exactly rational human beings, at the very least we are compassionate human beings but this pandemic has shown how selfish human beings can be for the smallest want or desire.



People have perished in this pandemic and there are still people who will never become part of that number, human beings who have died in solitary, alone and forgotten. What is even more mind-boggling is how much it is still been played down as common flu and how we should not make a big deal out of a hoax. Well, I am screaming, I cannot fathom how anyone who has seen (or refuses to see) the challenges with the lockdown for millions would want to play the ignorance card. Lest I forget, there are the ones who doubt until someone they know dies within a very short time of contracting the virus and then they come online for sympathy. I am hollering at such nonsense, bullshit with people trying to eat their cake and have it. We all can see how some of the people who played down the virus are among the very first people to get the vaccine…. like, what do you need the vaccine for when you said it isn’t a real thing in the first place? The irony!


As with the common resource described by Hardin in his famous article, our collective well-being is the new common in this pandemic. Depleting it means, we will all suffer (if we are not already tired of the suffering). We are encouraged to wear a mask to limit the spread as people can become carriers without even knowing till they eventually break down. How much your choice to practice safe distancing and wearing a mask is important to protecting the well-being of others says a lot about how much we depend on each other. A single person’s selfish decision to play down the pandemic because it does not directly affect them tells a lot about the enduring image of the Homo economicus who is only interested in getting on with what he desires. People travel from north to south for the flimsiest reason, roaming east to west with no care in the world for something that could just wait but no, it is almost like they would die just giving up that trip. If more people had just respected social distancing in the very beginning and understood that this would not go on forever, then maybe the world would have been in a better place with the situation better contained.


I wonder how we cannot postpone a party, a ski trip, a wedding, or a journey even though their lives never depended on it. Some trips are important and they cannot wait but a lot of people traveling for leisure during a pandemic is what I don’t understand. What is worse is many are not masking, social distancing, or taking hygiene seriously. People have played this down, roaming around and becoming super spreaders. Yes, we still do grocery shopping, go to work and do the things essential for our survival but there are people adamant about reaffirming the tragedy of our well-being; our precious common.


In Nigeria, millions are living in an alternate reality. People are so preoccupied with surviving and worry less about dying from the virus. A lot of organizations still put their workers at risk by insisting on one-on-one, come-to-the-office style, needless meetings and programs that could wait till things get better but No, it is back to how things were while more people continue to die. Archaic work culture, resistant to evolution and embracing opportunities of moving roles online. People are back into the grip of poverty, and more have become jobless but what of those who still have their jobs, the elite, celebrities and the middle class…who attend parties not bothering to keep their distance and just shove the idea of any virus existing?


Those who want to go to Dubai or London to spend Christmas…..Can’t it wait? At least, the poor already have poverty and hunger to deal with, maybe we could excuse their fight to survive choosing death by hunger or death by the pandemic but people who have it better are the worst of the super spreaders. In Sweden, students still low-key gather, and throw corridor parties, many will tell you why they will never get the virus. Yet, they are everywhere….. roaming in the buses, on endless shopping sprees, on the train back to back, at the gym, the bar, going on that ski trip, running to see the northern lights with no masks or even social distancing.


Many offices and school organizations have taken serious steps but that limits the spread within their premises, it has very little effect on people’s private lives outside. A lot of institutions that played this pandemic down still encouraged students to gather causing even more spread. I am not even understanding the need for anyone to go to the NYSC camp in Nigeria during this pandemic. Now it is massive panic registration for the National Identity card (NIN), screaming for reason in the wake of the aggressive new strain (the second wave). Some Nigerians came into the country from places like the United Kingdom without respecting the pandemic guidelines, something they cannot do in the countries where they live.



I am not sure many understand how much making an effort to protect yourself helps the next person. How giving up that want and postponing something that can wait makes a world of difference. Yes, as humans it can be a challenge to give up a holiday tradition, a party, or a type of food that has become a tradition but being alive is paramount. No, you won’t die, just let it go this year. A personal selfish decision can cost lives and affect our common good when we cannot let go and understand the severity of this pandemic. Being focused on maximizing your self-interest over the health of others is furthering the tragedy of this pandemic. Health workers have died and facilities have been overstretched but humans cannot let go of something that is a want, something that their lives do not depend upon. The pandemic may not affect you negatively or severely but remember people who have lost their jobs, their homes, family members, and millions struggling to feed while you are so focused on going to the mall to buy that shoe, that lipstick you probably do not need. You can at least order online, gym at home, cook at home, and encourage your friends and colleagues to embrace online interaction.


There is a vaccine but we still don’t know when the whole world will be vaccinated. There are anti-vaccine people and the forgotten (blame it on economic inequality or corruption). We need to stay alive, we must stay alive. Obeying wearing a mask, and social distancing can limit the spread and send the virus back to where it came from sooner than we know. We are no longer fighting for toilet rolls, soaps, or sanitizers and the lockdown has been eased. Yet, the deep desire to choose ourselves and beliefs over others is us living out the tragedy of the commons, even for the smallest needless and perishable desire, that we cannot let go of.

Stay Safe….

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