“Weighing” the coronavirus COVID-19

There is a growing debate about the issue of weighing COVID-19’s impact on public health versus the economic cost to individual livelihoods, industry, and society writ large.

As of this writing, there are 491,623 cases according to the Johns Hopkins Map. 22,169 are dead. And likely when you click this map in the future, the numbers will be higher. Quite possibly much higher.

Some countries are just getting started with the disease. Anthony Fauci has brought up the possibility that COVID-19 might be a seasonal disease, much like the current flu.

And there is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding the age of infection and its likely harm. Just yesterday (as of this writing) several YouTuber doctors are speaking to the “blase” way we have dismissed the health concerns of younger people. As the CDC has reported recently, some 40% of American hospitals have seen visits from those aged 30 – 54.

Ourworldindata.org is a salve to many of the irrational debates that have stirred in our collective memory for ages, and it is the place to which Steven Pinker spent a great amount of his time when writing his book Enlightenment Now, one of the most influential non-fiction reads for me in the past decade. How does COVID-19 stack up to other causes of death in our most recent data?

The category for COVID-19, because I do not consider myself a medical professional, is a little tricky. But we could qualify the condition as a respiratory disease, which stands already as one of the biggest killers. Now, keep in mind that this graph is likely to change, but the deaths that we have experienced are added deaths, outside the normal range of what occurs.

Because what we are experiencing is so far from normal. While the disease as a killer is nominal, the thing to continue to hammer into people’s heads is that we have no current vaccine. We do not know the long term effects of the disease (such as respiratory diseases affecting those infected for years to come) and we cannot even be sure of who will be hit worse. Granted, there are some easily detected underlying conditions and behaviors that we have heard about almost to death in a 24-hour news cycle (smoking/vaping, obesity, etc.) But again, a young soccer coach got this, and an olympic swimmer got it. And they are either dead, or claim that it is the worst sickness they have ever had.

When weighing economic costs, as much as we would like mathematics and statistics to perfectly arrange our lives and be 100% accurate, there is no precedent for this, and because of that there is no real formula that could work, try as economists might.

The only hope then is a constant democratic debate using natural language. And the conversation that is growing on the front lines from medical doctors is to stay at home. Industries can be rebuilt, but trust in the global system will take much longer. If millions die, a whole generation of citizens will have their opinions and beliefs unalterably damaged because of the risks we posed on ordinary citizens, while elites shut themselves off behind closed doors.

That is not the story I want to write with my fellow American citizens. What I want to look back on is the idea that we knew what to do, and we strapped on our seatbelts and we did it. And despite the fact that it was difficult, we thought long term, and we saved human lives.

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