Research / BFI Working PaperMar 25, 2020

Does Social Distancing Matter?

Michael Greenstone, Vishan Nigam

This paper develops and implements a method to monetize the impact of moderate social distancing on deaths from COVID-19. Using the Ferguson et al. (2020) simulation model of COVID-19’s spread and mortality impacts in the United States, we project that 3-4 months of moderate distancing beginning in late March 2020 would save 1.7 million lives by October 1. Of the lives saved, 630,000 are due to avoided overwhelming of hospital intensive care units. Using the projected age-specific reductions in death and age-varying estimates of the United States Government’s value of a statistical life, we find that the mortality benefits of social distancing are about $8 trillion or $60,000 per US household. Roughly 90% of the monetized benefits are projected to accrue to people age 50 or older. Overall, the analysis suggests that social distancing initiatives and policies in response to the COVID-19 epidemic have substantial economic benefits.

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