Nothing is easier than imagining hypothetical threats to humanity that differ so categorically from any that we’ve experienced before that it would be folly to stick to the familiar rules of the game. Earth is in the path of a hurtling asteroid that will within weeks certainly blow our entire planet to smithereens unless the state confiscates on command whatever it needs to quickly build a giant missile to intercept the doomsday rock.
But it’s infantile to mistake a problem unusually challenging for one so unprecedented that many of the foundational rules of society are to be abandoned indefinitely. Just because reality occasionally throws us curveballs with uncommonly large arcs does not mean that we, upon encountering such a curveball, should treat it as a pitch that differs categorically from ordinary ones. We should remain in the batter’s box, adjust as appropriate within the rules, and do our best to hit such a pitch as we would any other. We should not suspend the rules of the game in order to enable the oncoming ball to be blasted with bazookas.
No reader in October 2020 will have trouble guessing the phenomenon to which I allude with this baseball analogy. The novel coronavirus might well be novel in a medical sense, but it does not confront humanity with a novel threat, one that differs categorically from many that we’ve confronted earlier. Covid-19 is, instead, a curveball with an uncommonly large arc. Nothing more. This virus is emphatically not the existential peril that many people – especially those in the media and those holding (and seeking) political power – make it out to be.
Six Times More Dangerous than the Flu
Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that Covid-19 is estimated to be “about six times as deadly as the seasonal flu.” In order to account for the (hardly as yet confirmed) assertions that many people who are not killed by Covid will nevertheless be left by it with long-lasting debilitating ailments, let’s estimate Covid’s danger as being 12 times that of the flu. Are we close to a doomsday-asteroid scenario?
No. Not remotely.
My George Mason University colleague Bryan Caplan, blogging at EconLog, asked this sensible question: “If coronavirus is ten times worse than flu, perhaps we should make ten times as much effort to combat it, not a thousand times?” Substituting “twelve” for “ten,” I ask the very same question.
What efforts do we exert to combat the flu? Very few, despite the fact that the flu annually kills, in the U.S. alone, tens of thousands of people. Individuals with flu-like symptoms go to their doctors. Many of these individuals also take some time off of work and take some medications. Governments do little beyond encouraging people to get seasonal flu shots, which many people get (while many others don’t).
A worthwhile research project for some graduate student or assistant professor would be to calculate an estimate of the monetary measure of society’s average annual effort undertaken in response to the flu. This figure can then be compared to the total size of the response to Covid. I don’t dare here guess the details of what such research would turn up, but I’m quite sure – as in willing-to-bet-my-pension-against-one-dollar sure – that the magnitude of the response to Covid is many multiples of 12 times the effort routinely devoted to combating the flu. Bryan Caplan’s suggestion that the response to Covid has been 1,000 times greater than the response to the flu seems to me to be, if anything, too conservative.
A Curveball, Not a Doomsday Rock
Upon noticing the uncommonly large arc of this Covid curveball, many people panicked and saw not a ball thrown in a somewhat different way but, instead, a doomsday asteroid bearing down on them with unprecedented lethality. They therefore uttered no protest when the umpires suddenly pushed them out of the batter’s box, locked them in the clubhouse, and then blasted away at the curveball madly with bazookas.
This categorically different response – the wholesale obliteration of once widely respected rules – the exercise by government officials of never-before-used discretionary power – the still-prevalent fear-mongering without context or perspective – might be justified if Covid truly does pose to humanity an existential threat. But this hysteria and tyranny do not begin to be justified as a response to a virus that is estimated to be about six times as deadly as is the flu. No sensible person would have complained about a response to Covid six times – or even 12 times – more intense than is the normal response to the flu. But sensible people do complain – loudly and with justification – about the wildly disproportionate response to Covid.
A thoughtful and proportionate response to Covid would have been far more nuanced than what we actually suffered. Such an approach would have involved, for example, the identification and protection of especially vulnerable groups, most notably the elderly. This response would also have put more trust in individuals to exercise personal responsibility at choosing how much protection each person desires. And the relatively few individuals who kept their heads and warned against the appalling overreaction, as well as against the kooky defenses of it, would at least have been heard with open minds rather than mindlessly demonized as enemies of humanity.
Too many people over the past six months have taken leave of their senses. We, our children, and our grandchildren will long live with the consequences of this foolish panic – consequences that almost surely will inflict on humanity harms far worse than any that Covid could possibly have ever inflicted.