Some basic economics of COVID-19 policy
A look at the trade-offs we face in regulating behavior during the pandemic
By Casey B. Mulligan, Kevin M. Murphy, and Robert H. Topel – The costs of the COVID-19 crisis come in two primary forms. The first is the direct impact in terms of health and lives lost. The second is the indirect impact that comes from efforts by individuals, private institutions, and governments to mitigate those health impacts, such as social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and mandatory business closures. It is imperative that we keep in mind that both are costs, and that less of one typically means more of the other. Like it or not, the first lesson of economics is that there are trade-offs, and choices are inevitable.
Regardless of how we choose to bear them, the costs of the pandemic will be large. Some very rough estimates provide perspective. Based on our earlier work on the value of mortality reductions and improved health, we estimate that an unrestricted pandemic infecting 60 percent of the US population and with an infection fatality rate (IFR) below 1 percent would result in roughly 1.4 million deaths, heavily concentrated among the elderly, with a total value of lost lives of about $6 trillion. For comparison, that is equivalent to about 30 percent of annual US GDP, suggesting that even small progress against the spread of the disease can be quite valuable.
Against this, we estimate that efforts to slow the pandemic via a nationwide shutdown of “non-essential” economic activities would carry a cost approaching $7 trillion per year (roughly $20 billion per day), even ignoring other long-run costs from reduced values of human and physical capital and any intrinsic value of reduced civil liberties.
Of course, an unrestricted pandemic is implausible even in the absence of government interventions, as individuals have powerful incentives to engage in self-protection once the risks are even partially known. Even so, these are big numbers. more>