Commentary: This is how much Americans will pay to stop coronavirus spread and save lives

Commentary
Commentary

A new analysis tried to estimate Americans' “willingness to pay” based on the implied value of social distancing and other public intervention measures.

The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) is seen in the financial district of lower Manhattan during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City on Apr 26, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Jeenah Moon)

POTSDAM, New York: A new analysis suggests Americans are willing to pay about US$5 trillion to stop the spread of COVID-19 and save as many lives as possible – dwarfing the US$3 trillion Congress has so far agreed to spend to support the US economy and its workers.

To get to that figure, we calculated the implicit value of public intervention measures like social distancing and statewide lockdowns – meant to prevent people from catching COVID-19 and possibly dying – by estimating how much people are willing to pay to have them implemented.

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We conclude – based on modeling the spread of the disease and examining epidemiological and economic data – that the average person is essentially willing to pay US$15,000 to reduce the rates of infection through social distancing, shelter-in-place and other interventions.

We then multiplied that by the population of the US to get an aggregate figure.

WHAT THE FIGURE MEANS

Health officials tend to argue that strong social distancing measures should remain in place for a prolonged period of time, while others want the restrictions lifted immediately.

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Economists frequently calculate what people are willing to pay to find an answer to questions like these.

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The US Department of Transportation, for example, uses an estimate of US$28,800 per injury avoided for minor injuries and US$9.6 million per life saved for interventions that reduce fatality risks – such as building a new highway or adding a train line.

Clearly, it would not be reasonable to wait to ease the restrictions until the fatality rate of COVID-19 falls to zero.

We accept deaths arising from the seasonal flu and deaths that could be avoided by allocating more resources to medical research, and we readily accept potentially deadly hazards in our daily activities, like when we get in a car.

Ambulances are seen outside the emergency center at Maimonides Medical Center during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York, US, Apr 14, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

The key is to find the right balance, as we often do with other risks, ensuring that the costs of the measures adopted do not exceed the benefits.

THE COSTS OF SAVING LIVES

Our research shows that, in the aggregate, the benefits in terms of lives saved and morbidity avoided can well justify the enormous economic costs brought by social distancing measures.

An important caveat, however, is that since most of the benefits of these measures accrue to a relatively small group of highly vulnerable individuals – while the cost burden fall on the entire population – not everybody may willingly accept those measures, as evidenced by protests against the lockdowns.

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