COVID-19 and the Fear Factor

by James A. Bacon

The COVID-19 virus poses a real threat to the public health. I’m not minimizing that. According to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus map, more than 17,000 people around the world have died from the disease. But is the magnitude of the health threat so great that it warrants shutting down half the U.S. economy?

I don’t know the answer. But, then, I don’t think anyone else does either. What I do know is that humans are subject to a herd mentality. We are not so different from the wildebeests in the photo above. You may not see the lion stalking the herd, but if all around you are stampeding in panic, you’d be a damned fool not to join the stampede. And it strikes me that Governor Ralph Northam, who had been relatively restrained in his approach to the virus, panicked yesterday when he put into place some of the most restrictive measures anywhere in the country to slow the spread of the virus. (The only saving grace: State-owned liquor stores are classified as essential businesses to keep open!)

As the Governor’s epidemiologist acknowledged yesterday, Virginia does not yet have an epidemiological model to forecast the spread of COVID-19. Northam is making critical decisions on the basis of incomplete data. What he does know is what’s in the headlines. Is it a coincidence that he acted so forcefully the day after the Washington Post characterized him as under-performing Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser in dealing with the epidemic? The article — commentary disguised as news — equated effectiveness with aggressive action.

Perhaps history will prove Northam acted correctly. But it’s critical at a time like this, with lives and the economy hanging in the balance, for someone to push back — to offer an alternative to herd thinking and media hysteria. So, let’s take a look at the limited data we have to see whether the hysteria is justified.

As of yesterday, the Virginia Department of Health had reported that 3,697 Virginians had been tested for COVID-19 and 254 had tested positive. What does that tell you?

It tells me a lot more than the fact that 254 Virginians were shown to have the virus. It tells me that 3,443 people, or 93%, did not have the virus. These weren’t random people pulled off the street. Because testing kits were limited, hospitals and health authorities limited the testing to individuals who appeared to display symptoms most closely matching the sickness. In other words, this was a highly selective test. One would expect the ratio to be reversed — that 93% had the disease and 7% tested negative. But, no, only a small minority had it.

That data point also suggests to me that the number of people carrying the virus is probably a lot smaller than commonly believed. Look, I’m not an epidemiologist, my ignorance of the subject is profound, and I’ll happily stand corrected. But that’s the way it looks from my vantage point.

On the other hand, it is true that asymptomatic people can spread the disease. Also, we can see from the course of the virus in other countries that the spread can gain momentum with frightening speed. I emphasized that fact repeatedly in my previous posts, in which I began asking (long before anyone else in Virginia) if Virginia hospitals had enough beds to handle an inundation of patients.

But at this point, we’re not even close to overwhelming the system. The number of hospitalized patients — 38 as of yesterday — isn’t even a decimal point in hospitals’ patient populations. Admittedly, as I’ve pointed out in other columns, 38 could become 3,800 in three or four weeks if present trends continue. If….

But there are no “ifs” involved with what’s happening to the economy. We have no idea if Northam’s new measures will make a measurable difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19. But we do know thousands of Virginians have lost their jobs, and that the new measures will ensure that thousands more do as well.

Now, let’s look at the mortality rate. Yes, six individuals have died from the virus so far. In 2018, Virginia experienced 1,283 deaths from the flu, according to Centers for Disease Control data. That didn’t rate a single story. The year before… 1,245 deaths. Not worth a single story. No one freaked out. No one thought it necessary to shut down the economy.

The nation is in panic mode, reinforced by the media fixation — a fixation which Bacon’s Rebellion, admittedly, has shared — on the virus. A corporate executive on CNBC this morning made an astute observation. If the media focused on automobile accidents as it does with COVID-19, we’d be running daily tallies of traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities. Governors would be urging people to stay home and restricting travel to mass transit and bicycles. Bernie Sanders would be denouncing greedy auto manufacturers. Congress would be clamoring for trillions of dollars in new spending.

There is no evidence that Northam’s more cautious approach (before yesterday) was any less efficacious than Hogan’s or Bowsers. The incidence of COVID-19 was no higher in Northern Virginia than in Maryland or D.C., And I question whether the new, tighter measures will make any difference.

I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. But it’s worthwhile for the wildebeests to take a look around before stampeding off the cliff. Maybe there wasn’t a lion after all.