Well, aren’t these some interesting times?
My girls haven’t been in school for two weeks, although this week would be spring break anyway. They won’t return to school until at least April 3rd.
I haven’t been in the office either. We’re all working from home until at least March 30th, when the company bigwigs will decide whether it’s safe for us to breathe the same air. I don’t mind doing my programming job at home, of course. I do it half the time anyway. But it feels a little weird to be ordered to stay home.
I’m not sure what to make of all this. Part of me thinks we’re committing economic suicide for what will turn out to be little worse than the flu that goes around every year. Dennis Prager wrote a column recently that’s in line with my thoughts on the issue:
Chinese deaths (3,217) account for half of the worldwide total. If you add Italy (1,441) and Iran (724), two countries where many Chinese were allowed in until recently, that totals another 2,165. In other words, outside of China, Italy and Iran — with 5,382 deaths collectively — 1,018 people have died.
Those numbers have gone up a bit since the column appeared, but keep in mind that the flu – run-of-the-mill flu – kills 30,000 or more people per year in the U.S. alone. The H1N1 swine flu of 2009 killed roughly 12,500 Americans.
Meanwhile, according to this article, 99 percent of the people who died in Italy suffered from previous medical conditions, and most were elderly. The average age of those who died was 79.5 years.
Back to Prager:
The thinking is that we must shut down the Western world to prevent the exponential growth of the virus. If we don’t, our hospital systems will be overwhelmed. Many thousands, maybe more, would die, as doctors have to make grisly triage decisions as to who gets care and who doesn’t. This latter scenario is reported to have already happened in Italy.
Though there is no longer an exponential growth in the United States, they may otherwise be right.
Is this thinking correct? The truth is we don’t know.
We have no idea how many people carry the COVID-19 coronavirus. Therefore, the rates of either critical illness or death are completely unknown. Perhaps millions of people have the virus and nothing serious develops, in which case we would have rates of death similar to (or even below) the flu virus. On the other hand, perhaps not many people carry the virus, but the rates of illness demanding intensive care and of death are much greater than those of the flu.
We can only be certain that shutting down virtually every part of society will result in a large number of people economically ruined, life savings depleted, decades of work building a restaurant or some other small business destroyed. As if that were not bad enough, the ancillary effects would include increased depression and divorce and other personal tragedies.
That’s what concerns me: we may be scaring ourselves into tanking a lot of businesses and jobs. If government officials and news anchors breathlessly reported all the people dying from run-of-the-mill influenza each winter, would we be any less scared? If every fatal auto accident ended up on the news — complete with pictures and press conferences by police describing the deaths -– would you ever want to take a casual drive again? Maybe not, considering you’d be hearing about roughly 100 people dying in their vehicles every day.
I’ve mentioned Dr. John Ioannidis in several posts, speeches, etc. He’s the doctor and researcher who studies the studies on diet and health and points out how unreliable most of them are. He wrote an interesting piece on our reaction to the coronavirus as well. It’s long, but here are a few quotes:
The current coronavirus disease, Covid-19, has been called a once-in-a-century pandemic. But it may also be a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.
At a time when everyone needs better information, from disease modelers and governments to people quarantined or just social distancing, we lack reliable evidence on how many people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 or who continue to become infected.
Bingo. You’re probably heard people on the news talking about the infection rate or the death rate. You can ignore whatever numbers they’re citing for the simple reason that we have no friggin’ idea how many people have the virus. An article I read last week quoted a woman who contracted the virus on a cruise ship. How awful was it? It wasn’t. She had a fever for a couple of days and that was it. For all we know, hundreds of thousands of people have already been infected and experienced a few symptoms they wrote off as a common cold.
This evidence fiasco creates tremendous uncertainty about the risk of dying from Covid-19. Reported case fatality rates, like the official 3.4% rate from the World Health Organization, cause horror — and are meaningless. Patients who have been tested for SARS-CoV-2 are disproportionately those with severe symptoms and bad outcomes. As most health systems have limited testing capacity, selection bias may even worsen in the near future.
The World Health Organization could do their credibility a huge favor by sticking to what they actually know. These are the same people who told us (with “evidence” that’s beyond laughable) that meat causes cancer. Hey, WHO: if you want me to listen to you about the threat posed by a disease, don’t lie to me about the threat posed by a hamburger. You remind me of this headline from the satirical site The Babylon Bee.
Anyway, Ioannidis crunches some numbers and says what while we don’t know what the death rate would be in the general population, he suspects it would be somewhere between 1.0 percent and 0.5 percent.
If we assume that case fatality rate among individuals infected by SARS-CoV-2 is 0.3% in the general population — a mid-range guess from my Diamond Princess analysis — and that 1% of the U.S. population gets infected (about 3.3 million people), this would translate to about 10,000 deaths. This sounds like a huge number, but it is buried within the noise of the estimate of deaths from “influenza-like illness.” If we had not known about a new virus out there, and had not checked individuals with PCR tests, the number of total deaths due to “influenza-like illness” would not seem unusual this year. At most, we might have casually noted that flu this season seems to be a bit worse than average. The media coverage would have been less than for an NBA game between the two most indifferent teams.
Makes sense to me.
On the other hand, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author Antifragile and The Black Swan, made his fortune by understanding and calculating risk. He believes social distancing for a few weeks is exactly the right thing to do. Maybe, but I hope it doesn’t stretch into months.
It’s been interesting watching the run on food and other supplies at the local grocery stores. I’m not sure why people wait until a real (or perceived) threat is announced to start preparing for a lockdown. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, malevolent hackers, an electromagnetic pulse … there are all kinds of potential threats to the supply chain. Keeping some extra food and supplies around is a good idea in any year.
About a year after we moved here, our part of Tennessee was slammed by The Great Flood of 2010. When we bought the mini-farm, we asked the previous owner how she fared during the flood. The house stayed dry (it’s on a hill), but the creek that cuts through the front pastures turned into a river for about a week. She couldn’t leave the property.
With that and other potential Black Swan events in mind, we’ve made it a habit a keep a good stock of non-perishable foods and emergency supplies on hand. When the coronavirus panic finally ends, do yourself a favor and assume there’s another lockdown on the horizon somewhere.
Stay well, my friends.
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