Let’s say that everyone is totally reckless, and they go to Christmas Eve “Omicron parties.” A week or two from now the virus has cleared their systems and I, who stay at home and blog, can then go out and frolic. Even if they stay sick, or if they die, they are removed as sources of potential infections for others (see below for new variants, possibly from the immunocompromised).
If I know that is happening, I find it easy to stay at home for a week. I look forward to my pending freedom. In other words, right now my behavior becomes safer. I engage in intertemporal substitution.
Alternately, let’s say that quite a few people decide to behave more safely. They stay at home and avoid the Omicron parties, and furthermore they go about with a mask in Whole Foods and don’t go to bars at all. The Omicron pandemic, instead of being over in two weeks, can run on for months, depending on the exact numbers of course. There is a ready stock of “not yet infected with Omicron” potential victims to keep the virus circulating. And that means ongoing risk for me.
Returning to my decision calculus, I can wait a week but I cannot stay at home for a month or two. So I know I am going to go out, and I expect I am going to get Omicron. So I might as well go out now. My behavior becomes riskier.
Get the picture? If one set of people behave more safely, another set takes more risks. And vice versa.
This is one reason why moral exhortation, or for that matter policy interventions, may be less than effective in our current moment.
It is also a reason why telling people “don’t worry about it!” doesn’t fully translate at the collective level either.
Of course you can modify these scenarios with reinfection risk, new variants, and other factors.