A few Days ago in a televised interview Governor Cuomo said something that I think was very wise, basically that he feared panic more than COVID19. I wish the Governor would act accordingly as his draconian measures are spreading the panic he says he fears; they are ill-advised and will do far more damage than the disease, actually proving his initial instincts correct.
Panic is defined as sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior. Well we’ve certainly have had plenty of that, but in this instance, it is particularly toxic. Many economists are judging Wall Street’s reaction as irrational; assume they are correct, but if financial panic is a bad thing, we should realize that government panic can do much greater damage in far less time.
While statistics are changing from moment to moment, as of today, 03/24/20, on a worldwide basis, deaths from COVID19 are about 18,000 of the 418,000 cases reported; more than a third of which are in Italy – more on that later. Consider for a moment that the 2019/2020 seasonal influenza has killed over 50,000 people and counting in the US alone, and we get some perspective of where we are from an epidemiological viewpoint.
You’ve heard from all sorts of talking heads at the CDC and WHO all kinds of dire predictions about death counts in the millions, yet China, the origin country of this pathogen, is experiencing ever declining rates of infection and related deaths. Granted, China’s track record on reliable information is suspect, but South Korea is experiencing the same.
In a recent interview, Richard Epstein, a highly regarded legal scholar, also well respected for his analytical studies on previous epidemics like HIV, cautioned against the very panic and draconian measures such as the lock-downs we are seeing in California and New York. His insights are well worth considering; his particular concern is that the rash and senseless government acts shutting down the country will result in a far greater economic catastrophe than the Corona virus would otherwise cause.
Epstein makes particular reference to the poor epidemiological work done so far that is based purely on a geometric progression calculation only, without consideration of all the other factors that such studies are supposed to include, such as causation, transmission, outbreak investigation, surveillance, forensics, environment, age, occupations, screening, biomonitoring, and comparisons of treatment effects. Obviously this takes access to data, and time, but time is what you take to have the knowledge necessary to make rational decisions that don’t have dire consequences.
The goal of a properly conducted epidemiological study is it to get the necessary knowledge about a disease from which such sound decisions can be made; panic obstructs this goal. What we should demand from our government leaders is a calm acceptance of the fact that we have a serious health problem with no basis in fact to judge what needs to be done until science solves it and then assess the situation rationally, not to panic as they have done. It’s a case so far of shoot-ready-aim.
What we don’t need is to feed the frenzied panic with drastic draconian measures like shutting down the economy, flooding the credit market with even more debt, spending trillions of dollars from already empty pockets, eviscerating an anemic dollar and driving the US into a recession or even worse. The US is not supposed to be some authoritarian third world country incapable of sound judgements. You don’t address pandemics with political and financial measures; pathogens don’t care about such stuff.
As mentioned earlier, the phenomenon of why Italy has suffered so badly, even worse than China, comes down to the simple fact Italy’s healthcare system is hopelessly inadequate for everyday services, let alone a pandemic. Add to this that they have one of the largest aged populations on the planet, perhaps second only to Japan. Consider the fact that 87% of the deaths in Italy are those 70 years or older, and the median age of those hospitalized is 67. It also doesn’t help when you have a health care system so eviscerated by socialized medicine in a country that has been in a recession for years.
The US is ramping up testing and likely the number of infected and those dying will increase, but for the government to go into such a panic indicates more the fact that politicians are afraid of a perception of inaction, mostly created by the media binge, than sending the US into an economic collapse that will create even greater suffering and related health issues. To cover their irresponsible behavior, they will look to blame everything and everybody rather than themselves; in essence, they are more concerned with themselves than the good of the citizens they are supposed to serve.
What we should do is have a little more courage and common sense. This brings to mind a great observation from an ancient philosopher named Seneca: “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”