Sick of Everything

Kevin Lewis

January 28, 2021

How Bad Is It? Elite Influence and the Perceived Seriousness of the Coronavirus Pandemic
Philip Moniz
Journal of Experimental Political Science, forthcoming


In spite of its immense global impact, Republicans and Democrats disagree on how serious a problem the coronavirus pandemic is. One likely reason is the political elites to whom partisans listen. As a means of shoring up support, President Trump has largely downplayed and but sometimes hyped the severity of the virus’s toll on American lives. Do these messages influence the perceived seriousness of the virus, how the president is evaluated as well as support for and compliance with social distancing guidelines? Results suggest that Republican identifiers had already crystallized their views on the virus’s seriousness, the president’s performance, and social distancing policies and behaviors. Unexpectedly, information critical of President Trump’s policy decisions produced a backlash causing people to show less concern about the virus’s death toll and rate the president’s performance even more highly.

The Long-Term Impact of the COVID-19 Unemployment Shock on Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates
Francesco Bianchi, Giada Bianchi & Dongho Song
NBER Working Paper, December 2020


We adopt a time series approach to investigate the historical relation between unemployment, life expectancy, and mortality rates. We fit a Vector-autoregression (VAR) for the overall US population and for groups identified based on gender and race. We find that shocks to unemployment are followed by statistically significant increases in mortality rates and declines in life expectancy. We use our results to assess the long-run effects of the COVID-19 economic recession on mortality and life expectancy. We estimate the size of the COVID-19-related unemployment to be between 2 and 5 times larger than the typical unemployment shock, depending on race/gender, resulting in a 3.0% increase in mortality rate and a 0.5% drop in life expectancy over the next 15 years for the overall American population. We also predict that the shock will disproportionately affect African-Americans and women, over a short horizon, while white men might suffer large consequences over longer horizons. These figures translate in a staggering 0.89 million additional deaths over the next 15 years.

Housing Precarity & the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impacts of Utility Disconnection and Eviction Moratoria on Infections and Deaths Across US Counties
Kay Jowers et al.
NBER Working Paper, January 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated the adoption of a number of policies that aim to reduce the spread of the disease by promoting housing stability. Housing precarity, which includes both the risk of eviction and utility disconnections or shut-offs, reduces a person’s ability to abide by social distancing orders and comply with hygiene recommendations. Our analysis quantifies the impact of these various economic policies on COVID-19 infection and death rates using panel regression techniques to control for a variety of potential confounders. We find that policies that limit evictions are found to reduce COVID-19 infections by 3.8% and reduce deaths by 11%. Moratoria on utility disconnections reduce COVID-19 infections by 4.4% and mortality rates by 7.4%. Had such policies been in place across all counties (i.e., adopted as federal policy) from early March 2020 through the end of November 2020, our estimated counterfactuals show that policies that limit evictions could have reduced COVID-19 infections by 14.2% and deaths by 40.7%. For moratoria on utility disconnections, COVID-19 infections rates could have been reduced by 8.7% and deaths by 14.8%. Housing precarity policies that prevent eviction and utility disconnections have been effective mechanisms for decreasing both COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Deaths of Despair and the Incidence of Excess Mortality in 2020
Casey Mulligan
NBER Working Paper, December 2020


Weekly mortality through October 3 is partitioned into normal deaths, COVID, and nonCOVID excess deaths (NCEDs). Before March, the excess is negative for the elderly, likely due to the mild flu season. From March onward, excess deaths are approximately 250,000 of which about 17,000 appear to be a COVID undercount and 30,000 non-COVID. Deaths of despair (drug overdose, suicide, alcohol) in 2017 and 2018 are good predictors of the demographic groups with NCEDs in 2020. The NCEDs are disproportionately experienced by men aged 15-55, including men aged 15-25. Local data on opioid overdoses further support the hypothesis that the pandemic and recession were associated with a 10 to 60 percent increase in deaths of despair above already high pre-pandemic levels.

The Economic Case for Global Vaccinations: An Epidemiological Model with International Production Networks
Cem Çakmaklı et al.
NBER Working Paper, January 2021


COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating effect on both lives and livelihoods in 2020. The arrival of effective vaccines can be a major game changer. However, vaccines are in short supply as of early 2021 and most of them are reserved for the advanced economies. We show that the global GDP loss of not inoculating all the countries, relative to a counterfactual of global vaccinations, is higher than the cost of manufacturing and distributing vaccines globally. We use an economic-epidemiological framework that combines a SIR model with international production and trade networks. Based on this framework, we estimate the costs for 65 countries and 35 sectors. Our estimates suggest that up to 49 percent of the global economic costs of the pandemic in 2021 are borne by the advanced economies even if they achieve universal vaccination in their own countries.

Scarred but Wiser: World War 2’s COVID Legacy
Michael Lokshin, Vladimir Kolchin & Martin Ravallion
NBER Working Paper, December 2020


The paper formalizes and tests the hypothesis that greater exposure to big shocks induces stronger societal responses for adaptation and protection from future big shocks. We find support for this hypothesis in various strands of the literature and in new empirical tests using cross-country data on deaths due to COVID-19 and deaths during World War 2. Countries with higher death rates in the war saw lower death rates in the first wave of the COVID pandemic, though the effect faded in the pandemic’s second wave. Our tests are robust to a wide range of model specifications and alternative assumptions.

Socially Optimal Mistakes? Debiasing COVID-19 Mortality Risk Perceptions and Prosocial Behavior
Martin Abel, Tanya Byker & Jeffrey Carpenter
Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, forthcoming


The perception of risk affects how people behave during crises. We conduct a series of experiments to explore how people form COVID-19 mortality risk beliefs and the implications for prosocial behavior. We first document that people overestimate their own risk and that of young people, while underestimating the risk old people face. We show that the availability heuristic contributes to these biased beliefs. Using information about the actual risk to debias people’s own risk perception does not affect donations to the Centers for Disease Control but does decrease the amount of time invested in learning how to protect older people. This constitutes a debiasing social dilemma. Additionally providing information on the risk for the elderly, however, counteracts these negative effects. Importantly, debiasing seems to operate through the subjective categorization of and emotional response to new information.

Rolling back the gains: Maternal stress undermines pregnancy health after Flint's water switch
Shooshan Danagoulian & Derek Jenkins
Health Economics, forthcoming


Environmental disasters impact disadvantaged communities disproportionately both through the epidemiological challenge of exposure, but also by undermining the progress of public health efforts. This paper studies changes to smoking cessation, breastfeeding, and weight gain during pregnancy in the period following the switch in water supply in Flint, Michigan, in April 2014. As the switch resulted in immediate and significant deterioration in water quality, eventually leading to its contamination with lead, we estimate a 10.5 percentage point increase in smoking and a 2.1 percentage point decrease in breastfeeding. We show evidence that these changes in maternal behavior are linked to increased stress due to changing water quality. We estimate that the increase in smoking alone is responsible for most of the increase in incidence of low birthweight among infants in Flint, resulting in $700 additional costs per birth. Increased smoking during pregnancy and lower breastfeeding rates in Flint roll back years of public health efforts, resulting in lifetime higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer for mothers in the community.

Light pollution, sleep deprivation, and infant health at birth
Laura Argys, Susan Averett & Muzhe Yang
Southern Economic Journal, January 2021, Pages 849-888


We conduct the first study to examine the fetal health impact of light pollution based on a direct measure of skyglow, an important aspect of light pollution. Using an empirical regularity discovered in physics (called Walker's law) as an instrumental variable, we address the potential endogeneity problem associated with the skyglow variable. We find evidence of reduced birth weight, shortened gestational length, and increases in preterm births. Specifically, increased nighttime brightness, characterized by being able to see only one‐fourth to one‐third of the stars that are visible in the natural unpolluted night sky, is associated with an increase of 1.48 percentage points in the likelihood of a preterm birth. Our study adds to the literature on the impact of early‐life exposure to pollution, which so far has focused primarily on air pollution. Our study has important policy implications regarding the necessity of minimizing skyglow that is, for example, contributed by streetlights.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.