The front cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is emblazoned with the words “DON’T PANIC.” The authors knew that you might forget some of their advice during an emergency. If you can keep those two words in mind, though, you’ll often be all right.
Right now, the world is experiencing a viral pandemic. Last year alone, 770,00 people – almost a million! – died from this viral infection. There are treatments, but no cure. And the known treatments are out of reach for many people who contract the disease.
In a recent outbreak in my home state of Indiana, an additional 235 people were infected with this fatal virus.
HIV is really, really scary.
Right now, the world is also experiencing an outbreak of oppressive government control. In many European countries, the citizens are on lockdown. In France, people must apply for authorization in order to visit the grocery store.
In the United States, “non-essential” businesses have been forced to close. Children have lost access to their schools. University students were locked out of their dormitories. People are suffering psychological damage from the effects of social isolation and fear.
That sounds scary, too.
But also strange. Because schools didn’t close in response to the HIV pandemic, or the outbreak of gun violence, or lead-tainted drinking water. Schools closed in order to combat the spread of a new zoogenic coronavirus – a virus that appears to be significantly less dangerous than seasonal flu.
And yet, even though all our data suggests that Covid-19 is less dangerous than this year’s seasonal flu, lives are being up-ended.
The New York Times has been full of sensational scaremongering. But the subtitle for today’s article about Seattle tells the story of the real calamity:
In a state that has seen more deaths from the coronavirus than any other, the stress has started to multiply. Jobs lost. Kids underfoot. Parents at risk. “It’s exhausting,” one woman said.
Jobs lost, children barred from continuing their education – that’s a problem!
Schools were not closed in response to the seasonal flu. Why would they be? That happens every single year – the seasonal flu isn’t news. Although the deaths are sometimes noticed. In early January, The Seattle Times reported that:
Of the people who have died so far this season, one was younger than 5 years old and another was between the ages of 5 and 17, state health officials report. Two adults between the ages of 30 and 49 have died, and the remaining 17 were people 50 or older.
The seasonal flu is scary! It can kill you even if you are young and healthy. Already, this year’s seasonal flu has killed something like 30,000 people in the United States alone.
By way of contrast, Covid-19 is extremely unlikely to kill you if you are young and healthy. From Nell Greenfieldboyce’s article, “Who Faces the Greatest Risk of Severe Illness from Coronavirus?”
The person who died in Placer County, California was described by officials as “an elderly adult with underlying health conditions.” Most of the people who died in Washington were residents of Life Care Center, a nursing facility. All but three of the victims in Washington were over age 70.
The younger people who died include one man in his 40s and two men in their 50s. Officials said these individuals had underlying medical problems.
Worldwide, only one (1) person younger than 21 has died of Covid-19. By way of comparison, this year’s not-particularly-deadly seasonal flu, as of March 14, had already killed 6 children in Washington State alone. Washington state, the epicenter of the United States’ Covid-19 outbreak.
The data in the U.S. is similar to Italy, which has been particularly hard-hit by coronavirus […] found the average age among the 105 patients who died from the virus as of March 4 was 81 years old.
And yet, even though the data suggest that Covid-19 is not particularly dangerous – it’s much less dangerous than seasonal flu for anyone under 50 – many news organizations have published sensational numbers about the high chance of death. Even the World Health Organization claimed that Covid-19 had a 3.4% fatality rate.
These numbers are obviously false. This is the percentage fatality rate of people who tested positive for Covid-19 … but the only way to receive a test was to have a high fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, and feel sick enough that it seemed prudent to go to a hospital to be tested.
Many other people also had the virus. Those people didn’t get very sick, though, so they didn’t go to the hospital to be tested.
When Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis analyzed the available data in detail, he estimated that the actual fatality rate might be as low as 0.05%, and that the upper bound was probably 1%. Ioannidis writes:
That huge range markedly affects how severe the pandemic is and what should be done. A population-wide case fatality rate of 0.05% is lower than seasonal influenza. If that is the the true rate, locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps of a cliff and dies.
Given the extremely low number of people younger than 50 who have been seriously affected by Covid-19, I am inclined to believe the lower numbers – that Covid-19 is less dangerous than the seasonal flu.
Even if Covid-19 is as dangerous as the upper bound suggests, however, the advice to “flatten the curve” seems misguided. In the United States, people repeated the phrase “it would be better to have the same number of infections spread out over 18 months instead of 18 weeks,” and proposed the (initial) cure of a 3-week school closure.
A 3-week closure would not magically cause infections to be spaced over 18 months. It would simply delay the exponential growth phase of the epidemic by 3-weeks. To actually space infections over 18 months, you would need approximately a year of social isolation.
Spacing infections over 18 months also makes them more dangerous. In the 1918 flu epidemic, the virus mutated midway through the season and became much more lethal. Right now, Covid-19 poses very low risk to people who are under 50 years old and in good health. But there’s a chance that it could mutate and become more dangerous.
The probability of mutation increases with the number of viral generations. Let’s say we start with a sick person and nine people who have not yet been exposed. If these people all go to a party together and get infected, the nine new cases will all wind up with the same viral generation. Then they’ll clear it, and there’ll be nobody new to infect.
If they instead practice “social isolation,” then the virus will hop from one person to the next. The tenth person receives a virus that has undergone many additional replications, potentially mutating to become more dangerous.
Our society would be better off if every young healthy person were exposed as quickly as possible – this would get the epidemic over with as quickly as possible, and reduce the pool of potential carriers.
It’s reasonable for people who feel like they are at high risk of death from the virus to practice social isolation until the epidemic is over. But it’s not reasonable for everyone else to do it.
Out of misguided fear, though, we are causing real harm. We have disrupted children’s schooling. We’re destroying businesses. Local retailers have struggled for years – now many cities are forcing them to close, shifting even more business to Amazon. Out of misguided fear, we’re accelerating the forces that are destroying our country.
Ioannidis ends his analysis with a warning:
In the most pessimistic scenario, which I do not espouse, if the new coronavirus infects 60% of the global population and 1% of the infected people die, that will translate into more than 40 million deaths globally, matching the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The vast majority of this hecatomb would be people with limited life expectancies. That’s in contrast to 1918, when many young people died.
One can only hope that, much like in 1918, life will continue. Conversely, with lockdowns of months, if not years, life largely stops, short-term and long-term consequences are entirely unknown, and billions, not just millions, of lives may be eventually at stake.
To be perfectly honest, I was spooked, too. It’s hard to stay calm when so many news organizations are publishing sensational stories. When I went out to the climbing gym with friends, my spouse asked me to change out of my potentially-infected clothes as soon as I got home.
Then we looked up the data, and realized we’d been hoodwinked. We had panicked over nothing.
Except, wait, no – there is reason to panic. Because this lockdown is scary! Needless social isolation for the masses is scary!
And the chance that our proto-fascist president uses this faux-crisis to commandeer even more control? That is really scary.