Valuing mortality risk in the time of COVID-19

James K. Hammitt


In evaluating the appropriate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a key parameter is the rate of substitution between wealth and mortality risk, conventionally summarized as the value per statistical life (VSL). For the United States, VSL is estimated as approximately $10 million, which implies the value of preventing 100,000 COVID-19 deaths is $1 trillion. Is this value too large? There are reasons to think so. First, VSL is a marginal rate of substitution and the potential risk reductions are non-marginal. The standard VSL model implies the rate of substitution of wealth for risk reduction is smaller when the risk reduction is larger, but a closed-form solution calibrated to estimates of the income elasticity of VSL shows the rate of decline is modest until the value of a non-marginal risk reduction accounts for a substantial share of income; average individuals are predicted to be willing to spend more than half their income to reduce one-year mortality risk by 1 in 100. Second, mortality risk is concentrated among the elderly, for whom VSL may be smaller and who would benefit from a persistent risk reduction for a shorter period because of their shorter life expectancy. Third, the pandemic and responses to it have caused substantial losses in income that should decrease VSL. In contrast, VSL is plausibly larger for risks (like COVID-19) that are dreaded, uncertain, catastrophic, and ambiguous. These arguments are evaluated and key issues for improving estimates are highlighted.


Valueper statistical life; Pandemic; .COVID-19; Age-dependence; .Ambiguity; aversion . Risk perception;

JEL codes

  • J17: Value of Life • Forgone Income
  • Q51: Valuation of Environmental Effects
  • D61: Allocative Efficiency • Cost–Benefit Analysis
  • H42: Publicly Provided Private Goods
  • I10: General


James K. Hammitt, Valuing mortality risk in the time of covid-19, TSE Working Paper, n. 20-1115, June 2020.


James K. Hammitt, Valuing mortality risk in the time of COVID-19, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, vol. 61, December 2020, pp. 129–154.

Published in

Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, vol. 61, December 2020, pp. 129–154