February 8, 2021 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Like so many people, I can’t stop wondering about Covid-19. But unlike many people, my thoughts aren’t on the physical dangers that this disease poses to me. I long ago stopped being unusually worried about me becoming infected with SARs-CoV-2.

To be clear, I’m no Covid denier. I understand that I can catch this nasty disease and that it might do me in. But the same is true for the ordinary flu. And so too might I be done in by riding in an automobile. So too might I meet an early death as a result of my habit of drinking each evening a few glasses of wine (and sometimes one too many glasses).

Given my age (although 62, I’m young compared to Covid’s chief victims), my relatively good health (I daily go to the gym), and my slimness (I’m six feet tall and weigh 150lbs), I see no reason for me to worry about me catching Covid. I simply, truly have no special fear of this disease. I shake hands with people willing to shake. I hug friends and family members willing to hug. I dine indoors at restaurants without a second thought and remove my mask the moment I’m seated. And I would go about my business without a mask altogether were I not required to wear one in order to enter stores and restaurants.

My incessant wondering about Covid is instead about what other people think, or refuse to think, about Covid – the other people being those who, after reading the previous paragraph, will accuse me of being either appallingly selfish or inexcusably unaware that the coronavirus spreads through humans coming into close physical proximity to each other.

Covid Compared to What?

While I don’t think that I’m appallingly selfish, I’m absolutely certain that I’m aware of how Covid-19 is transmitted. It is indeed transmitted to humans by other nearby humans. And I’m willing to grant that masks and “social distancing” reduce the likelihood of transmission.

And so here’s a feature of Covid that I do incessantly wonder about: What’s so special about this communicable and dangerous disease that causes humanity to treat it as differing categorically from the countless other communicable and dangerous diseases that we regard with utter blasé-ness?

It won’t do to answer that Covid’s lethality is higher than normal. Such an answer, strictly speaking, implies that lockdowns, masks, “social distancing,” and all the other arbitrary exercises of massive government powers and antisocial behaviors that are justified as necessary to fight Covid-19 become appropriate the moment we encounter a disease that is even slightly more dangerous than ‘normal.’

How much higher than normal must rise the lethality of a communicable pathogen in order to justify the sort of wholesale rearrangement of human existence, and crushing of human freedom, that we’ve suffered over the past eleven months? Pro-lockdowners ignore this question. They simply assume that Covid’s dangers are so much higher than normal as to make Covid unquestionably a categorically different threat, one that justifies categorically different responses.

It would be nice to get some specifics. For example, how much more lethal than the flu must a contagious disease be in order to justify lockdowns? Five hundred percent? One hundred percent? Five percent? Exactly where does Covid sit on the spectrum of less-than-normal to more-than-normal lethality? And where on that spectrum does a disease’s danger transform it categorically from less-dangerous ones?

According to the OhioHealth blog, whose proprietors recently compared Covid-19 to the flu, Covid kills 1.6 percent of the people who contract it while the flu kills 0.1 percent of its carriers. This difference is significant. But does it put Covid into an altogether different category of diseases? Does it justify the hysteria of the past year and the resulting lockdowns?

Because on these numbers Covid is 16 times more likely to kill its victims than is the flu, a tentative answer of ‘yes’ might be given. Yet it’s fair to wonder – as does Bryan Caplan – why the response to Covid isn’t more proportional to Covid’s dangers. While I know of no credible quantification of society’s defensive reaction to Covid compared to society’s defensive reaction to the flu, my sense is that the Covid lockdowns and other unprecedented measures undertaken in the name of prevention are magnitudes more than 16 times greater than are the measures that humanity regularly undertakes to avoid the flu.

If you doubt my sense, consider the measures taken to avoid the flu. At the collective level, almost no such measures are taken – this despite the flu’s contagiousness and lethality. CNN doesn’t offer daily counts of flu infections and deaths. Schools don’t close despite children being at greater risk from the flu than from Covid. And neither Neil Ferguson nor Anthony Fauci scare us with descriptions of worst-case scenarios of the flu’s spread.

What few measures are taken in response to the flu are taken voluntarily by individuals. People get flu shots and stay home when they’re ill. Some die, are grieved by their loved ones, and are buried without their funerals being filmed and shown sensationally on TV.

Unpacking the Number

While comparing Covid’s lethality to that of the flu is appropriate, it’s also appropriate to take into account Covid’s absolute lethality. The same numbers that show Covid to be 16 times more lethal than the flu show that 98.4 percent of those who contract Covid survive. Does a 1.6 percent lethality rate warrant treating Covid as an existential threat that justifies unquestioning acceptance of colossal disruptions of society? To me it seems deranged to answer ‘yes.’

Moreover, an aggregate lethality rate hides much that is relevant if the disease discriminates amongst its victims. As is well-known, Covid so discriminates. It reserves its dangers overwhelmingly for the very old. Some people argue that this fact is irrelevant, but that argument is weak and, I dare say, not really believed by those who offer it. No decent person can possibly fail to be more horrified by a disease that largely kills children, or even by one that kills indiscriminately, than by one that largely kills the elderly.

And then there’s uncertainty about the data’s reliability. Here’s OhioHealth’s description of how it calculated the Covid death rate: “As of January 27, 2021, the CDC reports that 25,152,433 people in the United States and United States’ territories tested positive for COVID-19 with a national mortality 419,827. This brings the total mortality rate to 1.6%.”

That is, 419,827 divided by 25,152,433 equals 1.6 percent. (Actually, it rounds up to 1.7 percent.)

Even ignoring the distinction between dying with Covid and dying of Covid – a distinction that, were it taken more seriously, would likely decrease the reported number of Covid deaths and, thus, reduce the size of the numerator – there’s good reason to question using as the denominator the number of positive tests.

Leah Rosenbaum reports on a study from the National Institutes of Health that finds that last summer there were in the U.S. an estimated 17 million cases of Covid that went uncounted. Although testing has ramped up since the summer, and although many of these test results are false positives, it seems likely that the actual number of people who have Covid but never know it is much larger than the official count. If so, then Covid’s aggregate mortality rate is lower than 1.6%.

This point is one that Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins makes regularly. Here he is in December:

Inexplicably, authorities, including the World Health Organization, insisted on promoting a fatality rate they knew was exaggerated because of the failure to account for mild infections. To this day, U.S. officialdom and the media dwell on a nearly meaningless “confirmed” case count, knowing full well that doing so is innumerate and unstatistical. It’s a mystery and my only explanation is that they are afraid to stop because it portrays the disease as more deadly than it is (supporting the case for urgency) and also less prevalent than it is (supporting the case that it can somehow be contained).

Yet facts such as this one that counsel a less hysterical attitude toward Covid continue to be ignored. Why? Why on all matters Covid do so many otherwise sensible, appropriately skeptical, and numerate people – people who understand the necessity of trade-offs, the reality of unintended consequences, and the dangers of government power – lose their judgment and remain in the ranks of the hysterical masses who treat Covid as the existential threat that it most certainly is not? I can’t stop wondering why.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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