The Social Cost of Contacts: Theory and Evidence for the first wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Germany
Authors: Martin F. Quaas, Jasper N. Meya, Hanna Schenk, Björn Bos, Moritz A. Drupp, Till Requate (PLoS ONE, 2021, 16(3): e0248288)
Building on the epidemiological SIR model, we present an economic model with heterogeneous individuals deriving utility from social contacts creating infection risks. Focusing on social distancing of individuals susceptible to an infection we theoretically characterize the gap between private and social cost of contacts. Our main contribution is to quantify this gap by calibrating the model with unique survey data from Germany on social distancing and impure altruism from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The optimal policy is to drastically reduce contacts at the beginning to almost eradicate the epidemic and keep them at levels that contain the pandemic at a low prevalence level. We find that also in laissez faire, private protection efforts by forward-looking, risk averse individuals would have stabilized the epidemic, but at a much higher prevalence of infection than optimal. Altruistic motives increase individual protection efforts, but a substantial gap to the social optimum remains.