Thresholds of Unhealthiness: Governing in the Time of COVID-19

9 Pages Posted: 11 May 2020

Date Written: May 3, 2020


COVID-19 has left many governments facing questions of priority for which there is no obvious conceptual framework. When questions of politics, economics and health are so intertwined that one cannot be properly discussed without the others then neither political economy nor public health offer an adequate basis. Here I draw on principles of measurement to distil from epidemiology and economics the foundational concepts required in the current circumstances for governing. For governments determined to control their epidemic, I conclude they cannot avoid subordinating all other principles to a threshold of unhealthiness, and that these thresholds can be ordered. A corollary is a new and enduring uncertainty in all questions of policy. I illustrate different thresholds with examples from the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and New Zealand.

Keywords: COVID-19, Political economy, Public health, Measurement, Utility function, Pandemic, Epidemic, Epidemiology, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, New Zealand

JEL Classification: C0, I1

Suggested Citation

Cullerne Bown, William, Thresholds of Unhealthiness: Governing in the Time of COVID-19 (May 3, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

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