How to Balance Lives and Livelihoods in a Pandemic.

In Julian Savulescu & Dominic Wilkinson (eds.), Pandemic Ethics: From Covid-19 to Disease X. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 189-209 (2023)
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Control measures, such as “lockdowns”, have been widely used to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic. Under some conditions, they prevent illness and save lives. But they also exact an economic toll. How should we balance the impact of such policies on individual lives and livelihoods (and other dimensions of concern) to determine which is best? A widely used method of policy evaluation, benefit–cost analysis (BCA), answers these questions by converting all the effects of a policy into monetary equivalents and then summing them up. A different method, social welfare analysis, proceeds by determining the effects of a policy on individual wellbeing and then applying an aggregation formula to them to evaluate the overall effects of a policy. In this chapter, we survey these methods and argue that social welfare analysis has important advantages. One crucial advantage is that it enables ethical considerations relating to the impact of policies on individual wellbeing and its distribution to be incorporated into policy assessments in a transparent way. We illustrate this with a simple numerical model for evaluating pandemic policies that vary in terms of the stringency of the controls that they impose on individual behaviour, showing how the evaluation depends on the ethical significance accorded to their impact on the wellbeing of different age and income groups.

Author Profiles

Marc Fleurbaey
Princeton University
Alex Voorhoeve
London School of Economics
Matthew D. Adler
Duke University
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