In the midst of a widespread panicked response to any situation, it is important that people say “hey, wait a minute, why are we doing this to ourselves?”. The time for that reaction is now in regard to coronavirus. Not only is the current response to coronavirus unprecedented; it is completely irrational in light of the relative benefits and harms compared to other courses of action. That is not to say that the coronavirus isn’t a serious threat to the health of a small portion of the population, but to ask if the supposed cure isn’t worse that the disease. See #thecureisworsethanthedisease for more supporting information.
It is enlightening to examine the response to the last major epidemic, the swine influenza or H1N1 epidemic of 2009 and 2010. That epidemic resulted in an estimated 60 million illnesses, 300,000 hospitalizations and over 12,000 deaths in the United States alone. Worldwide, it killed an estimated 500,000 people. That epidemic began in the United States in April 2009. No national emergency was declared until October 2009, long after there had been millions of cases, tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths. Some schools closed, if there had been infections reported in the school, but there was no widespread shutdown of schools, economic or other activity. This was obviously an extremely contagious and dangerous disease from its inception. In June, two months after the first case was reported, CDC estimated there had been a million cases in the US. We are more than two months past the first case of coronavirus and we don’t even have 100,000 cases in the US. In short, the response to that obviously very serious disease outbreak was much more measured and inflicted far less disruption to daily life and economic harm to individuals. The obvious interpretation is that there was an acceptance that there would be some serious illness and mortality, but that had to be balanced against the damage caused to the population at large by an over-reaction.
Every year influenza sickens tens of millions of Americans, results in hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and tens of thousands of deaths. We know this will happen, notwithstanding widespread vaccination. We still haven’t been able to develop effective preventive measures or treatments. We don’t lockdown the country and disrupt our economy to prevent these illnesses and deaths from happening. What does this mean—is a person who might be killed by coronavirus somehow much more valuable than one who dies from influenza. I don’t know what other conclusion to draw.
Here is just a partial list of the damage being done by the current actions taken in regard to stopping the spread of a virus that appears no worse than seasonal flu. Tanking the economy into a serious recession, which means the loss of millions of jobs. Those are real people, generally lower income, who will be struggling to support themselves and their families. Among other things, this economic damage has real and serious consequences for health, not least in regard to foregone care, stress-induced illness and exacerbation of illness, loss of housing, loss of food security and on and on. How ironic that actions taken to supposedly protect the public health have the opposite consequence. But no one appears to be weighing that in the calculation of the benefits and harms of a response.
Another significant harm is burdening parents with children who are no longer at school. Many of these parents are single or dual workers. Many are low income and simply can’t afford either to miss work or to pay for child care. Are they supposed to leave 6 year-olds, 7 year-olds, ten year-olds, or even teenagers at home alone? It is clear this virus poses little risk to children and while they might, and that is a big might, be transmitters, again, where is the weighing of relative harms?
Threats to engage in lockdowns have driven panic-buying and threatened supplies of food and other needed items. More stress. It has also led to theft attempts, gouging and other lovely behavior. More to come if we keep freaking the population out. People will inevitably be assaulted or even killed if the politicians keep spewing reckless rhetoric and taking actions without careful thought.
So what is different about this virus or this time? In regard to the virus, the answer is nothing or not much. There is no trustworthy evidence at this point that it is any more contagious or harmful than previous serious viruses, or even annual influenza. In regard to what is different in the world, two things are worth noting. One is the ever-present traditional and social media sources constantly barraging us with the most sensational, and often inaccurate information. One certain result of this is that public anxiety and even panic ensue. Neither of those has any beneficial effect. And the media coverage whips up demands for action by those in political positions, demands which are hard to resist for fear of being accused of doing nothing. And so the measures promulgated by the politicians are not always rational and tend to the extreme to avoid any possible recriminations of not taking some specific action that could have been taken.
The second factor is the increased power of the public health authoritarians, who are now emboldened to tell us all how we should live. Their suggestions on how to deal with the coronavirus are driven by the same urges that lead them to advocate for bans on soda and fats and other similar actions. Just another group of supposed experts who are most interested in controlling the public. Dr. Fauci and others should be asked to explain why they are recommending more drastic action now than occurred during the H1N1 epidemic a mere decade ago; why they don’t recommend similar action every year in regard to influenza; and how they justify the immense economic damage caused, including health harms, by their recommended measures. They should also be asked if the measures taken now won’t just have the effect of ensuring that we have to do this all over again next fall, because there will be no widespread immunity and we don’t know if there will be an effective vaccine. I don’t think they have answers for those questions. They are just thrilled that this time they have been able to force imposition of these irrational, meaning having no logical reason, measures.
A rational response would be to do all we could to protect the most obviously vulnerable groups, encourage those who have symptoms of illness to quarantine themselves, and be prepared to treat the seriously ill. But don’t limit people in working and engaging in other normal activities. This would likely result in large numbers of people quickly developing partial antibodies and immunity, which in itself would greatly inhibit the number of infected people as the virus would largely be transmitted to people who are immune, breaking the ongoing chain of transmission. And it would hedge against the development of a fully effective vaccine, which is highly unlikely. After all, the influenza vaccine, which has been around for a long time, does not stop widespread flu. Politicians and public health officials aren’t leveling with the public in pretending that the suppression strategy they have adopted actually will stop the disease. It won’t. It can’t be kept up forever and when it is relaxed, the disease will pop up again. The mitigation approach taken with swine flu, is a far more rational strategy. Why isn’t it good enough this time?
So what can the public do? We should all force a real dialogue about appropriate actions to be taken in these circumstances. We should demand that all the harms from any proposed actions are identified and the costs presented to the public, so that some attempt is made to ascertain what action, or inaction, truly results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And we should do that now, so that this kind of economic and psychic damage, for no good reason, is never imposed upon us again. And we should remember at the next election what current politicians did to us, supposedly for our own good, but really out of cowardice.