Professor Marius Brülhart, from the Department of Economics at HEC Lausanne (UNIL), has just been appointed chair of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force’s Economics expert group. Prof. Brülhart has been a member of the group since its creation in March 2020 and took up his new role on 1 February.
The Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force was established at the very beginning of the pandemic in Switzerland and is responsible for advising the authorities on the crisis caused by COVID. Its members – around 70 experts from Swiss universities and research institutions, split into 10 expert groups – all serve on a voluntary basis. The Task Force provides independent scientific advice, without taking decisions on specific measures or actions to implement.
As a specialist in public, regional and urban economics and international trade, Prof. Brülhart has recently taken over as chair of the Economics expert group. We talked to him briefly to find out more about the role of economists in managing the health crisis through the Task Force.
What is the role of the Economics expert group you have just taken over?
The Economics group has drafted a dozen policy briefs on issues such as funding for COVID tests, the cost-effectiveness of quarantine rules for travellers, and the consequences of the crisis for public debt. Our latest analysis was probably the most ambitious, insofar as we tried to calculate the economic costs and health benefits of the measures currently in effect (and we found that the final outcome is probably positive).
How can experts in economics help to manage a health crisis, and why is it important?
A significant part of our work is showing the scale of the issues. Policymakers tend to focus on the budgetary aspect and the direct costs of their decisions, but they sometimes lack a broader vision of the size of the problem. Colleagues from ETHZ, for example, have calculated that each day of the pandemic in its current phase is costing a few 100 million francs in unrealised added value, compared with a hypothetical situation without COVID. It’s important to bear that kind of information and figure in mind when you are deciding on how much to invest in testing and vaccines.
What is your view of the future of the post-COVID economy in Switzerland?
Economists are not necessarily good at predicting the future. But if the vaccines prove sufficiently effective for us to return to a more or less normal life by the autumn, I would expect a strong economic recovery in response to the artificial halting of demand currently. We all want to catch up on “social consumption” and travel, and a lot of people have built up savings.
How has research at HEC Lausanne changed since the start of the pandemic?
Numerous researchers at HEC Lausanne have been working on areas specifically linked to the pandemic – particularly in the context of Enterprise for Society (E4S) – or have incorporated it into their projects. We have, for example, carried out surveys with SMEs and self-employed workers in Switzerland to understand how they were coping with the crisis. In another project, Prof. Rafael Lalive and his co-authors are studying changes in consumption in Switzerland in real time, based on electronic payments data. Another example is the research currently being carried out by Prof. Benjamin Müller and his colleague Jean-Charles Pillet in the Department of Information Systems, HEC Lausanne, which is looking at the capacity for adapting to remote working among professional services teams.
Finally, in response to the question “What are your personal aspirations in your new role?” Prof. Marius Brülhart concluded: “My main aspiration is to help make the Task Force redundant as quickly as possible by beating the virus!”. All members of the Dean’s Office and staff at HEC Lausanne wish him every success in his new role!