Rainy Weather Impacts on Coronavirus Outbreaks Reveal Economic Benefits of Past Social Distancing

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The rainy weather forced some people to stay home on the weekends before the initial pandemic shutdowns began.

What can a few rainy days teach us about the economy of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic? A lot, in the end.

The weekend before the issuance of the first wave of stay-at-home orders, rainy weather triggered behaviors similar to early social distancing in some counties in the United States, and health data indicates that these behavior changes have probably saved lives. Economists at UC Santa Cruz studied the effects of this fluke in a natural experiment. Their results show how communities that started some form of social distancing a little earlier may have enjoyed significant economic benefits.

This new research, published in the Journal of Health Economics, suggests that a 1% decrease in the population leaving home due to rain the weekend before the lockdown likely slowed the spread of the virus enough to create an average of up to $ 132 in per capita benefits in the county within two weeks, resulting from COVID- averted. 19 deaths. Based on these findings and the results of previous studies, the authors of the article estimate that the onset of the initial pandemic lockdowns two days earlier could have generated as much as $ 198 to $ 264 in benefits per person in two weeks. , compared to an estimated average cost of $ 2 to $ 14 per person in additional wages lost.

“As far as the implementation of lockdowns goes, I think it shows that having faster decision-making processes really pays off compared to a more wait-and-see approach,” said Associate Professor of Economics Ajay Shenoy. , main author of the new article.

While the public health basis for this argument has long been clear, the article’s findings argue for faster action that allows for a more direct comparison with some of the economic costs that have fueled the political debate around prescriptions. home stay. . And the paper’s focus on rain-induced social distancing also provides a unique opportunity to isolate the impacts of social distancing from other related variables.

Shenoy explained that many communities in the United States that have been the fastest to implement stay-at-home orders share common demographic characteristics or similarities in political climate and public health resources. These factors could have an independent impact on the outcome of the pandemic, making it difficult to focus solely on the specific effect of social distancing. But the rainy weather provided an outside influence that forced people to stay at home in a relatively random sample of different types of communities.

“It doesn’t rain more on a county because there are better hospitals, and the rain doesn’t care if you are rich or poor,” Shenoy said, “it kind of happens at random, at least after checking the historical data. weather patterns. So nature gave us a scenario that was quite capable of simulating a random experiment on the impacts of social distancing. “

Shenoy says another advantage of natural experiments is that they can be useful for field-testing predictions of epidemiological models. Ultimately, he hopes the findings of the current document can help inform public health policies. Analysis in the paper suggests that early social distancing at the onset of the pandemic produced economic benefits on average, primarily because it reduced the risk of very severe outbreaks in a small number of communities. Shenoy says this illustrates a major political challenge for stay-at-home orders.

“It is difficult for the leaders of a country to point out a concrete advantage of their policies, because what they have avoided is a small chance of a very bad result,” he said. “The county next door may be lucky and avoid this outcome as well, even though they didn’t lock in earlier. So you really need to have a really large comparison group to be able to really spot these types of benefits. ”

The research team believe their findings may offer some form of large-scale validation of the economic merits of a faster implementation of social distancing. In fact, the authors argue that the article’s projected benefits are likely underestimated, as they focus only on the economic value of the lives saved, rather than on other potential benefits such as reduced healthcare costs. health and reducing the incidence of chronic disease.

Future research could refine the picture by incorporating these types of additional benefits and comparing them to other potential costs, such as lost business benefits, lost school time for children, or impacts on mental health. Further work will also be needed to assess how vaccines, treatments and more infectious variants may have affected cost-benefit calculations since the first wave of the pandemic.

Still, Shenoy points out that an important mechanism affecting these calculations is that the costs of past social distancing are generally relatively fixed, while the benefits are more likely to continue to accrue over time. He hopes that a better understanding of these economic benefits could bring a new perspective to discussions of public health policies.

“In our analysis, the overall economic benefits are really quite large relative to the costs, and the reason is somewhat intuitive,” he said. “When it comes to slowing the spread of something like the coronavirus, taking early action to cut a chain of transmission is a public health investment that will pay exponential returns. “

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