The country has slowed to the pace of a toddler’s crawl because of the coronavirus epidemic. We have decided to follow the advice of the federal government’s top medical experts. This decision has imposed an economic burden on the country that may cause more damage than the virus itself.
Our handling of a very complex situation resembles the fable of the blind men and the elephant. We have experts in almost every field of human activity who have different views on how we should address the current plague. Each class of expert is examining a different part of the effect on the population. We are pretty much ignoring all of them who don’t have MD after their names. This approach assures that we will adopt a course of action based on a partial view and analysis of this very complex problem.
Obviously, this disease will kill some of the people it afflicts. The exact mortality rate is not yet known. My guess is that it will be around 1%. But that’s an opinion not a fact. We know that the vast majority of deaths will be in the elderly and people with disorders that compromise their immune systems. Whether the healthy elderly are at much greater risk of death than their children and grandchildren is not certain. If they are at greater risk, how much greater is also not known.
The medical experts are using models to gauge the various scenarios that the coronavirus might choose. No more than one will prove correct. They may all prove wrong. Their utility is in estimating the worst outcome that might ensue. The medical experts have no more knowledge of the economic consequences of their recommendations than any other layman. The devastating effect on jobs, small businesses, how long a damaged national infrastructure will take to repair, or even if it can be repaired are beyond the ken of the doctors.
Not only is there a medical and economic dimension to this epidemic, there’s a political effect to consider. As is always the case, politics trumps economics and everything else. It is clear that the public is frightened and supports draconian methods to combat the infection. They also support the aid package passed by congress. How public opinion will change if the current status remains in place for a long time is difficult to predict. The intrusion of a presidential campaign can only retard a reasoned approach to the epidemic.
How will we know if our current regimen is working? There are a couple of ways to evaluate effectiveness. Sweden has decided, at least for now, to keep schools and borders open. They have only banned gatherings of more than 500 people. How the country does compared to its Scandinavian neighbors will be instructive.
China is clearly lying about both the number of new cases and deaths. India does not have the means to isolate it’s billion plus people. India’s numbers will inform about the severity of this epidemic. While I don’t think the country will lie about its data, the means to keep track of what’s happening inside its borders are likely lacking. India has a population at least three times that of the US in a land mass one third that of the US. Thus, its population density is nine times that of the US.
Even in the US assessing mortality will be difficult. Distinguishing those who die with the virus from those who die of the virus will be very hard. People with chronic illnesses combined with advanced age are always apt to die from even the mildest insult. Annual mortality in the US is about 2.8 million. This works out to 7,671 deaths per day. So far COVID-19 mortality in the US is less than half an ordinary day’s death rate. It will take a substantial increase in this number to disclose excess mortality attributable to COVID-19.
The overwhelming mode of transmission of this disease is person to person. Obsessively washing your hands every 10 minutes and scrubbing every surface equally as frequently will likely have little effect on disease spread. Lady Macbeth is not a good role model at this time of peril and uncertainty. Staying home whenever possible is a good idea, but not one that can exist in perpetuity. It may be small comfort, but epidemics always end.