Isn’t that a refreshing scene? There’s nothing quite so calming as a tropical island, with gentle surf caressing a sun swept beach while warm breezes sway the palm fronds in a relaxing rhythm. If you squint carefully, you can almost see the natives roasting a swordfish over a crackling fire and smell the heady aroma of fresh island vegetables.
The island also represents what the medical community wants for America. They want us all to hunker down in our homes in hopes of extinguishing the Wuhan Flu, much as we would be isolated and alone on a South Pacific isle. Numerous government leaders have taken them up on this advice. Sadly, they haven’t given each of us our own tropical paradise. While they aren’t actually calling it an enforced quarantine, the lack of the correct verbiage doesn’t make it any less so. If you think otherwise, try leaving your house after 8pm.
Of course, we’re just starting to deal with the fearmongering that resulted in mass panic, and nearly mass hysteria. The national economy is virtually shut down. The stock market almost collapsed,with losses not seen in nearly a half century. Nobody is certain of the damage done, but estimates range as high as perhaps a 40% reduction in GDP and 30% unemployment, numbers not seen since the Great Depression. Social structures have been irrevocably altered, in ways we cannot begin to understand. The very nature of work has been altered, with more white-collar employees working remotely than ever before. When we do get back to work, to school; when the centers of culture and learning do reopen, we have no idea how the changes that were suddenly thrust upon us will reverberate in the future.
The biggest problem with all of this is that the data about this disease is profoundly unreliable. It has been said there are lies, damned lies and statistics and no common experience drives home that truism more than the current situation. From the beginning, statisticians and epidemiologists were dealing with incomplete (and even falsified) data from China, India, Italy and South Korea. As a result, modeling – which government leaders relied on to predict how deadly the COVID-19 pandemic would be to the general population – has been terribly inaccurate. The noted epidemiologist John Ioannidis recently remarked that “the fatality rate could plausibly lie between one in 100 and one in 2,000 cases.” Mind you, he is merely referring to death rate for those who are infected. Nobody has yet put forward a reliable model for the infection rate, because the data simply doesn’t exist. This is a problem that was anticipated. On March 17, Ioannidis wrote, “we lack reliable evidence on how many people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 or who continue to become infected. Better information is needed to guide decisions and actions of monumental significance and to monitor their impact.“
“But,” you say, “what about the rapid rise in cases in the United States I keep seeing on the evening news?” Ah, a fair question. Consider: since the United States started testing, it took us 17 days to administer the first 100,000 tests. It took another 11 days to administer the next 100,000. It has taken only 5 days to administer the last 320,000 tests. At current rates, the United States will be testing over 1 million people per week by mid-April. As the number of tests administered increases exponentially, the number of confirmed cases will also increase exponentially. The key evidence to look at is whether the number of positive cases is increasing at the same rate as the number of tests – and that answer is a resounding no. While tests have increased at a logarithmic rate, the increase in positive tests has followed a gentler curve, suggesting that the infection and lethality rates are lower than first anticipated.
One other note on testing: we have only been testing people showing symptoms. Yet the positive test rate is only about 15% of those tested for COVID-19. This is because what the media refers to as the “coronavirus” is actually a mutated form of the same virus that causes the common cold, multiple strains of influenza, SARS and MERS. Those are all corona viruses. As a result, the symptoms of COVID-19 fall into the same generalities as those other diseases: cough, fever, fatigue. That only feeds into the panic, especially as those are also symptoms of hay fever – and large swaths of the nation are entering spring allergy season.
For a doctor, the choice facing the nation is an easy one. They are worried about immediacy, and their immediate concern is to keep everyone alive and healthy. So recommending that everyone stay hunkered down in our houses and apartments is an easy choice. But for the rest of us, the choice is far from being simple. The president, and all 50 governors, have to weigh the importance of preserving lives now vs. the effects of leaving the economy in a downward spiral. How many people will end up dying from COVID-19 vs. how many people will die from starvation and other diseases of poverty if the economy slips into another massive depression? We can roughly extrapolate from available data that around 130,000 people will die from this disease. We cannot make even a haphazard guess about what the death toll from an economic depression that last months or even years might be, because while we know one is inevitable on our current course, we don’t know any of the particulars. We can’t. We’re not fortune tellers.
Without solid data, it is an impossible question to answer. Yet we’re all answering it, from the President to loudmouth Joey you normally meet at the corner tavern. The problem is, both of them – and everyone else – doesn’t really know, no matter what they tell you.
Will this virus be bad for the country? It already is. Will a deflated economy be bad for the country? It already is. But making everything worse is fear and panic. We can’t keep ourselves walled off forever, living in fear of everyone who sneezes. The federal government, between emergency fiscal expenditures and monetary expansion from the Federal Reserve, has already expanded national debt by nearly $8 trillion. That’s about 40% of last year’s GDP, and perhaps 65% of this year’s GDP. In short, that is an unsustainable degree of expenditure. We cannot afford to allow fear to panic us into cowardice, and we cannot afford to to allow fear to bankrupt the nation.
FDR once said “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It’s time for the panic to end, and for America to prove that FDR knew what he was talking about.