Matthew Adler, Richard Bradley and Alex Voorhoeve, along with a number of other researchers, have written a policy brief on how to evaluate the wellbeing impacts of policies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, to be presented at the Think20 forum later this year.

The COVID-19 crisis puts all governments in a difficult position. In order to avoid widespread infection, and in the absence of extensive testing capacities, they have to resort to near-universal lockdown and social distancing measures, which exact a severe economic toll. The choice between lives and livelihoods is stark, and trade offs have to be made. How should we conceptualise the benefits and burdens involved in such trade offs? And, once we have these benefits and burdens clearly in view: how do we balance them in order to determine which policy is superior?

In their policy brief, recently accepted for the Think20 forum taking place in Saudi Arabia later this year, Matthew Adler, Richard Bradley and Alex Voorhoeve, along with a number of other researchers, look at some of the ways that these trade offs can be evaluated. They recommend social welfare analysis, which measures the joint health and economic impact of policies on individual wellbeing and then aggregates individual wellbeing gains and losses to give an overall measure of how beneficial a policy is. This approach, they argue, is superior to standard benefit-cost analysis, because it assesses more accurately how policies affect each person and creates a transparent framework for making ethical choices, such as how much additional weight to give to the well-being of those who are worse off.

They illustrate this approach in a model of the pandemic and of policies to contain it. It suggests that going for early, intense suppression of the virus is likely to be best, so long as the economic impacts of the resulting lockdown on the poorest are mitigated.

Think20 is the research and policy advice network of the G20 – an international forum for the governments and central bank governors from 19 countries and the European Union. Think20 serves to generate insightful policy proposals, analysed by high-level experts. These proposals provide analytical depth to G20 discussions and assists G20 leaders in developing concrete and sustainable policy measures centered around G20 priorities. This year’s Think20 Summit will take place in Saudi Arabia at the end of October.

Richard Bradley and Alex Voorhoeve are Professors in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method. They have both worked on issues in the philosophy of economics and in decision theory, and Alex Voorhoeve in particular has worked extensively on philosophical issues within health policy. Matthew Adler is the Richard A. Horvitz Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, Philosophy and Public Policy at Duke University and Ludwig M. Lachmann Research Fellow in LSE’s Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science.