There is a devastating cost associated with the current chaotic and uncoordinated reopening of states and cities across the US and the globe after the COVID-19 shutdown because “pandemics are interdependent phenomena,” a new study shows. “Viruses and people’s adherence to the government policies designed to contain them spill over from region to region,” according to the study by the Social Analytics Lab at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.

This means the welfare of states is “reduced dramatically when reopening is not coordinated,” the study said.

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The study, which used movement data from more than 27 million mobile phones, social network connections among more than 220 million Facebook users, and census data, showed, that “the contact patterns of people in a given region are significantly influenced by the policies and behaviors of people in other, sometimes distant regions.”

A simple analytical model calibrated with the lab’s empirical estimates demonstrated that the “loss from anarchy” in uncoordinated state policies is increasing in the number of non-cooperating states and the size of social and geographic spillovers, the study said.

“These results suggest a substantial cost of uncoordinated government responses to COVID-19 when people, ideas, and media move across borders.”

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In another finding, the study showed that when just one third of a state’s social and geographic peer states adopt shelter-in-place policies, it creates a reduction in mobility equal to the state’s own policy decisions. When states fail to coordinate in the presence of spillovers as large as those detected in the analyses, total welfare is reduced by almost 70%, according to the study.

“As federal, state, and local governments begin opening businesses and relaxing shelter-in-place orders worldwide, policymakers are doing so without quantitative evidence on how policies in one region affect mobility and social distancing in other regions,” the study said. “And while some states are coordinating on COVID policy at the level of ‘mega regions,’ most, unfortunately are not.”

The study found that “this lack of coordination will have devastating effects on efforts to control COVID-19.”

While there have been many calls for a coordinated national pandemic response in the US and around the world, there has been little hard evidence to quantify this need, said Sinan Aral, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and an author of the study, in a statement.

“When we analyzed the data, we were shocked by the degree to which state policies affected outcomes in other states, sometimes at great distances. Travel and social influence over digital media make this pandemic much more interdependent than we originally thought.”

Aral said their results suggest “an immediate need for a nationally coordinated policy across states, regions, and nations around the world.”

The research not only assesses the impact of an uncoordinated reopening, but also gives governors a map with which to coordinate in the absence of national guidance. The research shows for all 50 states, which states affect each other the most and thus, maps the states that should be coordinating. These maps are sometimes surprising because, as a result of digital social media, each state’s success with social distancing is impacted by the policy decisions not just of geographically proximate states, but also of socially connected but geographically distant states, the study said.

For instance, Florida’s social distancing was most affected by New York implementing a shelter-in-place policy due to social media influence and travel between the states, despite their physical distance, according to the study. New Hampshire had a strong influence on adjacent Massachusetts, despite being a small state.

“This research highlights the need for states across the country to coordinate, even if they are not near one another, and the results suggest which states should be coordinating with which other states based on the strength of the spillovers between them,” the study said.

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