Research Economics

Lockdown Measures Are Not the Only Things Keeping Us at Home

, by Fabio Todesco
Two Bocconi MSc students, in a team with two Oxford PhD students, had their paper published in two prestigious outlets. Observing mobility data from mobile devices, they found that people in the US often distanced themselves before official measures were imposed in counties with high education, high trust in science and high income

Valentin Kecht and Guido Deiana are two second-year students of the MSc in Economics and Social Sciences. In mid-March, as lockdown policies were affecting billions of people's lives across the world, Kecht and Deiana started to investigate their effectiveness. They teamed up with two Oxford PhD students and wrote a paper that has since been published both as an INET Oxford Working Paper and in the CEPR COVID Economics series.

Using data from 40 million mobile devices in the US, they found that state- and county-level lockdown policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic can increase average time spent at home by as much as 39%, or 4.7 hours per day, and increase the percentage of people that stay at home by 8%. Even more interestingly, they found that individuals engage in social distancing practices even in the absence of lockdown policies, as the virus spreads in their area.

"The uptake of voluntary distancing measures varies with the socio-economic status of people", Kecht says. "Counties with the higher rates of voluntary distancing are those where people have less distrust in science, are more highly educated and have higher incomes. This suggests that policies targeted to the less responsive groups could be as effective as across-the-board lockdowns and probably less damaging in economic terms. It could also be a good omen for the reopening phase, as people are likely to remain cautious even after restrictions are lifted".

When Italy locked down, in early March, Kecht was in his native Germany and Deiana in Milan. "We had frequent calls and we thought that something could be done to better understand the pandemic", Kecht says. "We looked into real time data from Twitter and Google trends, but the breakthrough point was when an American company made available for research purposes mobility data near 4mln American points of interest based on the observation of 40mln mobile devices".

Kecht had kept in touch with David Van Dijcke, a PhD student at Oxford, since their time together as interns at the German Central Bank, and Van Dijcke was discussing the same ideas with a colleague of his at Oxford, Adam Brzezinski. The two teams merged and, in two hectic weeks, the first draft of the paper was ready. "We were scattered in Italy, Germany, Austria and the UK", Kecht says, "and coordination was only possible via videoconferencing". Van Dijcke, an affiliate of the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School, successfully submitted the paper to INET Oxford and a few days later the study was submitted and accepted by the Centre for Economic Policy Research for the new COVID Economics series.

Both Kecht and Deiana plan to continue their studies with a PhD program after graduation, but following different paths. "Working on the paper with Valentin and with experienced PhD students such as David and Adam was great", Deiana says. "I had the chance to use innovative econometric techniques and to manage granular data, but my research interests are microeconomics and industrial economics. After graduation I'd like to work for a couple of years and then come back to academia for a PhD". Kecht, on the contrary, is still working on COVID lockdown measures. "As time goes by", he says, "we obtain new data, that outline a more complex and interesting picture. I think that my thesis will cover this topic and, afterwards, I'll apply for a PhD".