By Edward Achorn
We are learning that COVID-19, while deadly, is much less deadly than originally feared. Moreover, it cruelly targets the elderly and those with serious health conditions, while tending to leave the young and healthy alone.
Whether the public knows that is another matter.
Rhode Island internist and epidemiologist Andrew Bostom, using the federal Centers for Disease Control’s “most likely case scenario” data (published on May 21), has calculated that the infection fatality ratio of COVID-19 is 0.20% to 0.27%. The ratio for the 1957-1958 Asian flu was a comparable 0.26%, but nobody dreamed of shutting down the American economy back then.
Citing a British statistical analysis, Dr. Bostom also argues that a child under 15 in the United Kingdom is four times more likely to die from a lightning strike than from COVID-19.
Just think about that.
It is worth stressing that we did not have the benefit of such information months ago when governors began locking down public activity. Models with wildly higher death ratios formed the basis for the initial response and intense public fear.
Nevertheless, it is striking, given the numbers we now see, that our society has done such immense damage to itself. Freedoms we once cherished have been tossed aside in the panic, possibly demonstrating to politicians that the public is ripe for future abuse. (“The Bill of Rights is above my pay grade,” New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy famously declared.) The U.S. economy, soaring three months ago, lies in smoldering ruins, with 38 million people unemployed, at last count. Once thriving small businesses built with decades of sweat and worry are shuttered forever. Students have had their educations sundered — a disaster especially for children from homes where parents are not around or able to help them learn.
Mitigation alone cannot explain how much lower the real numbers are than the initial projections.
You would think these new statistics would be trumpeted everywhere. They could help relieve Americans’ high stress. But dread still seems the order of the day.
Psychologists say fear is the most powerful human motivator because it is the primal emotion that kept the species alive for hundreds of thousands of years. In a clicks-conscious media, and among politicians, fear and death remain in the foreground.
“U.S. DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS,” declared a headline running across the top of The New York Times Sunday.
It was a powerful presentation. A long list of names of dead people followed with descriptions of some of what they achieved in life. The loss of so many human lives to an unexpected virus is indeed a terrible thing, and the front-page treatment undoubtedly humanized the disaster, helping us understand these deaths in a way that numbers alone could not.
But, of course, such a list cannot tell the whole story.
For starters, was it accurate? Many deaths attributed to COVID-19 have been caused by other things. The public, for example, quickly discerned that the sixth name on the Times’s list — Jordan Driver Haynes, 27, whom the newspaper described as a “generous young man with a delightful grin” — had died in what was ruled a homicide, not from COVID-19, according to KWWL-TV.
And what about context? How many deaths were caused by previous diseases of limited duration? Should we be similarly concerned about our fellow Americans who die in much greater numbers of heart disease, cancer, and stroke? How about the possibly greater number of lives that will be lost because of suicide or the failure to get medical care during the coronavirus lockdowns? Will we ever know their names? Do those victims count if we cannot list them?
Fear can help save lives. But relying on emotion becomes harmful at some point. In a free society, facts help the public strike a balance and make prudent decisions.
In real life, grownups must assess the cost vs. benefit of actions. No one can live a remotely free life if “one death is too many.” If that were the accepted standard, we could not drive on a crowded highway, walk down a flight of stairs, or leave our homes and build up immunity to diseases. We could not defend our country. Our ancestors could not have ended the horrible crime of slavery.
Risk, alas, is inherent in human life. We are not immortal. Government officials — however high their approval ratings — cannot make us so.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)