A Cure Worse Than The Disease?

I feel alone.  Not just because the coronavirus quarantine is shutting down the country and forcing us to stay in our homes, but because it seems like such a large majority of the country is willing to just accept it and go along with it.  Then when somebody disagrees, or God forbid, goes outside for something deemed “non-essential,” they are vilified as a horrible, selfish person who doesn’t care about people dying. 

One instinct that I have is to simply turn it around on those people and vilify them as horrible, selfish people who don’t care about millions of people being put out of work, retirement accounts being wiped out, and people becoming more lonely and depressed.  The thing is, I don’t think that’s true.  I think the people in favor of the shutdown do care about the economic and emotional impact of the quarantine but they don’t know how to weigh it against the fear that has been instilled in them about the coronavirus.  Instead of arguing or accusing, I decided it would work best just to clarify my rationale and hope that people can see that it is neither selfish nor illogical.

First, let me clarify my position.  I do believe that coronavirus is real and will kill people.  I think that there are reasonable responses for us to take to combat the virus.  I think that everyone should practice good hygiene. I think that it is reasonable for the elderly and people with medical conditions that make this virus especially dangerous to them to stay at home.  I think that we should lock down nursing homes, and that we should put money and resources into our medical response to the virus.  I just think that shutting down the whole country is not reasonable, rational, or consistent, and will hurt more than it helps. 

We first have to be rational and agree that people have always died, and will continue to die in the future.  This is nothing new.  There is obviously a certain level of risk that we deem reasonable to keeping the country running.  Otherwise, to save around 40,000 lives per year we would lower the speed limit to 10 mph.  We have to decide what level of death is reasonable to us, and what level justifies the effects of shutting down our society. 

As a baseball guy and a poker player I know a lot about probability and odds.  I think a lot about how likely things are to happen.  Considering that 98% of the people who are dying of coronavirus have underlying medical conditions and half of them have at least three, the odds of a young healthy person dying are pretty astronomical.  But what are the chances that I will even know anybody who dies of the virus?  The estimates on the number of deaths vary pretty widely.  Nobody actually knows the real death rate because most of the people who have coronavirus don’t count in the numbers because they can’t even tell they have it.  What is for sure is that it is much lower than the number that gets reported.  As of this moment the reported number comes out to about 1.7%.  As this report says (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/03/24/science.abb3221), it is likely that for every reported case of coronavirus there are 10 other cases.  That would, of course, move the decimal point one spot to the left for a death rate of about 0.17%, or very slightly higher than the 0.1% death rate of the flu.  Ask yourself, how many people do you know who died of the flu this year?  In fact, if we use Dr. Fauci’s doomsday guess that we could have “between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths,” and even if we go with the higher figure, we have lost 200,000 to the flu in the last 6 years.  (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html)  How many people do you know who have died of the flu in the last 6 years?  I would guess for most people the answer would be the same as mine, zero. 

The point is, the numbers we are hearing are likely far worse than the actual numbers.  They may sound big, but we need to have some perspective.  This is where comparing numbers with other situations is actually useful.  The Black Plague famously killed half of the population of Europe and it took about 200 years to get back to the population level it was at before.  I wondered, “what percentage of the United States will this kill and how long will it take us to get back to our current population level?”  So, I looked it up.  The United States population is 327,200,000.  200,000 deaths would be 0.06% of the population.  Then to find out how long it would take for us to recover and get back to our current population level I had to look up how many people normally die each day.  7,452. If we then average out the coronavirus deaths over a year, it would add 548 a day, making it an even 8,000 deaths per day.  Next, we have to look at how many people are born each day to see how long it will take to replace those 8,000 people a day.  There are, on average, 10,388 births per day in our country.  So the answer to my question?  Zero days.  In fact, not only is coronavirus not decimating our population as badly as it is being made out to be, but our population is growing by around 2,388 each day.

This is certainly lower than the threshold of a reasonable level of death to shut down our country that we were looking for, especially considering the damage the quarantine is causing economically and emotionally.  While we have already established that you probably won’t know anybody who dies of coronavirus, you almost certainly do know somebody who has lost their job.  I know several.  You definitely know people who have seen their retirement accounts plummet.  The high school seniors that I coach at baseball have worked hard for four years and will likely never get to play again.  Addicts are unable to attend meetings and many are relapsing.  People who have issues with anxiety or depression are struggling more than ever.  Many businesses and restaurants will go out of business.  There is less joy in the world because sports and concerts are shut down.  Maybe the biggest loss will be the loss of our liberty.  What ever happened to “give me liberty or give me death?”  Yes.  There was a time when Americans valued their freedom even more than their lives.  I fear that I am alone in still believing that.

Let me finish with another comparison.  If we figure out the odds of any random person dying of coronavirus based on the numbers above we get 1 in 1,636.  To put that in perspective, that’s about the same as the odds of dying from falling down the stairs (1 in 1,662) (https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-mortality-risk).  In other words, it does happen, but it’s very, very unlikely.  I suggest we treat coronavirus the same way as we treat stairs.  We have Grandma take the elevator but let everyone else keep climbing.

6 thoughts on “A Cure Worse Than The Disease?

  1. Your ideas are thought-provoking. You rightly point out that there are trade-offs that arise from the various approaches to this pandemic and that we should weigh those when deciding on a policy for addressing COVID-19. I also think that the economic impacts arising from not “flattening the curve” are complex, too. See, e.g., Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not: Evidence from the 1918 Flu by Sergio Correia, Stephan Luck, Emil Verner https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3561560

    Thanks for encouraging people to consider the consequences of the shelter-at-home approach. I am not sure I agree with your final conclusion but you bring up perspectives worth thinking about.

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  2. A month ago I would have agreed with you completely. Our 24 hour news networks will do anything to get viewers and fear sells. I don’t like to take the bait, but the effect the virus has had in other countries influences me not to be as cynical. When Gavin Newsom is publicly saying nice things about Donald Trump, something must be real. However, the information we have been given seems incomplete to merit the government response. Either there is information that the elites know about that makes this much worse than the data we have been given or the government doesn’t think we will comply with reasonable precautions unless they do something rash. Either way, I think moving back for some perspective, as you have in this piece, has merit. Shelter-in-place may save lives but will in destroy the quality of life for many more people for a long time. Survival of the fittest isn’t a fun reality, but it’s real life.

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