The ABCs of Covid-19 prevention in Malawi: Authority, benefits, and costs of compliance

World Dev. 2021 Jan;137:105167. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105167. Epub 2020 Aug 28.


A wide array of authorities-from religious leaders to government ministers-call upon citizens to take preventative measures against Covid-19. Which authorities can most effectively gain public compliance, and which measures will the public take up? Moreover, do people comply with authorities out of respect for their legitimacy, due to their expertise, or for fear of sanctioning? Answers to these questions are important for development practitioners, who need to understand how different partnerships might affect health behavior, and for scholars interested in understanding authority, legitimacy, and compliance. We explore these questions using a conjoint experiment embedded in a telephone survey of 641 Malawians. Individuals in our sample are more likely to say that they will comply with precautionary measures when the costs are low and expected benefits are high. Respondents view both traditional authorities and hospital heads as legitimately issuing directives and having the ability to monitor and sanction non-compliance, but appear to comply more with hospital heads and to do so out of respect for their expertise. These results emphasize how who issues directives affects whether individuals comply and provides insights as to why they do so. The findings also reflect individuals' cost-benefit calculations when considering precautionary measures, highlighting the importance of steps that can reduce costs (e.g., food security or income measures) or accurately reflect risks (e.g., information signaling the prevalence of Covid-19). The study not only helps to address the Coronavirus crisis but also has important implications for broader questions of authority and compliance.

Keywords: Authority; Compliance; Covid-19; Health behavior; Malawi; Sub-Saharan Africa.