Thinktank 20 Policy Briefs for the G20 Meeting in Saudi Arabia 2020 (2020)
The COVID-19 crisis has forced a difficult trade-off between limiting the health impacts of the virus and maintaining economic activity. Welfare economics offers tools to conceptualize this trade-off so that policy-makers and the public can see clearly what is at stake. We review four such tools: the Value of Statistical Life (VSL); the Value of Statistical Life Years (VSLYs); Quality-Adjusted Life-Years (QALYs); and social welfare analysis, and argue that the latter are superior. We also discuss how to choose policies that differentially affect people’s wellbeing. We argue in favor of evaluating policies using a Social Welfare Function (SWF), which evaluates the possible distributions of wellbeing across individuals that may result from a policy. Such a function, we argue, should regard increases in the wellbeing of the less well-off as especially valuable. We then use a model to illustrate how such a framework can help evaluate two broad policy types in response to the pandemic: eradication of the virus, and more lenient control of the spread. Our model reveals how such evaluations depend on many empirical facts but also on key value judgments about the relative importance of health and on the extent of special concern for the worse off. The purpose of this brief is not to make precise recommendations, as conditions vary widely across countries and over time, but to provide a methodology.