Two Burning Questions on COVID-19: Did shutting down the economy help? Can we (partially) reopen the economy without risking the second wave?

Anish Agarwal, Abdullah Alomar, Arnab Sarker, Devavrat Shah, Dennis Shen, Cindy Yang

As we reach the apex of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most pressing question facing us is: can we even partially reopen the economy without risking a second wave? Towards this, we need to understand if shutting down the economy helped. And if it did, is it possible to achieve similar gains in the war against the pandemic while partially opening up the economy? To do so, it is critical to understand the effects of the various interventions that can be put into place and their corresponding health and economic implications. Since many interventions exist, the key challenge facing policy makers is understanding the potential trade-offs between them, and choosing the particular set of interventions that works best for their circumstance. In this memo, we provide an overview of Synthetic Interventions (a natural generalization of Synthetic Control), a data-driven and statistically principled method to perform what-if scenario planning, i.e., for policy makers to understand the trade-offs between different interventions before having to actually enact them. In essence, the method leverages information from different interventions that have already been enacted across the world and fits it to a policy maker's setting of interest, e.g., to estimate the effect of mobility-restricting interventions on the U.S., we use daily death data from countries that enforced severe mobility restrictions to create a "synthetic low mobility U.S." and predict the counterfactual trajectory of the U.S. if it had indeed applied a similar intervention. Using Synthetic Interventions, we find that lifting severe mobility restrictions and only retaining moderate mobility restrictions (at retail and transit locations), seems to effectively flatten the curve. We hope provides guidance on weighing the trade-offs between the safety of the population, strain on the healthcare system, and impact on the economy.

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