Does Social Distancing Matter?
As the United States and the rest of the world grapple with COVID-19, the most reliable policy response seems to be social distancing, which itself imposes substantial costs on economies and people’s well-being. Indeed, people have begun to question whether the costs of social distancing exceed its benefits and are therefore too great. Here, we estimate the economic benefits of social distancing due to reducing mortality rates.
Panel A is derived from Ferguson et al. (2020) and reports the projected daily deaths in the United States due to COVID-19, including the impacts of overcrowding. It is apparent that the moderate social distancing scenario (roughly consistent with current US policy) is projected to greatly reduce the number of deaths, relative to the “no policy” scenario. The period where the daily number of deaths under the distancing scenario exceeds the “no policy” number of deaths is because of the lower rates of immunity in the population due to distancing. After September 1, the number of daily deaths in the two scenarios is equal. In total, these projections indicate that the moderate social distancing scenario will save 1.1 million lives by avoiding new infections and an additional 600,000 lives by avoiding overcrowding of hospital intensive care units.
Panel B shows the monetized benefits of saving these lives, which total $7.9 trillion, or roughly $60,000 per US household. About 90% of the monetized benefits are projected to accrue to people age 50 or older. Importantly, the benefits we compute are in the trillions of dollars because they capture the total value Americans place on remaining alive: not just the income they earn, but also the value they place on leisure, spending time with friends and family, and all other activities. Even so, the $7.9 trillion is likely an underestimate, because it does not account for social distancing’s impact on reducing uncertainty about mortality impacts, the potential for reducing morbidity rates, and improving quality of medical care for non-COVID-19 medical problems.