The Coronapocalypse Cometh

For the first time in recent history, the Western world is faced with a pandemic outbreak of a new disease with a significant mortality rate. Public health officials warn of worst case scenarios for the COVID 19 virus involving millions dead; the S&P 500 has cratered; and rumors of a nationwide lockdown (which would have to be ordered independently by all 50 governors) crop up daily. The United States and its closest allies are faced with societal chaos not seen in some time.

Today, panic and fear rule the day, particularly amongst the upper echelons of society.  Notably from this blogger’s perch (granted, in Dallas, Texas, which has not been impacted to the degree of several American cities), that panic and fear has not petered down to the same degree to the average citizen in many parts of the country.  While schools, offices, and restaurants have closed in large numbers (often at the order of state and local authorities), everyday commerce has continued at a reduced pace, and has not been entirely cut off.  Accordingly, hospitality and travel-related industries are at a standstill, but core construction and manufacturing continues, with some interruption.

This post will make an argument it does not always make in the age of Donald Trump – that the elite response (driven by too much “knowledge” about current conditions but not enough understanding of the COVID 19 virus and its effect on human populations) is much less accurate than the response of the average citizen, whose exposure to only the big picture probably constitutes an advantage today.  And because a wrongheaded response by elites is most likely to hurt the average worker more than it ultimately hurts the elite (whose jobs will not disappear and whose portfolios will recover), the article will counsel that targeted rather than draconian countermeasures against the coronavirus are the right answer to the controversially named “Wuhan Flu.”

In laying out the best response to COVID 19, here is an accounting of key facts (and some opinions) related to this disease:

-The health community knows little about COVID 19 due to its lack of prior widespread experience with the virus.

-The outbreak appears to have started in the Hubei province of China, and was initially centered in the fairly large city of Wuhan.  The Chinese government did little to control the outbreak initially before locking down Wuhan in late January 2020, but not in time to prevent what is now a worldwide spread.

-The disease has seen significant spread to South Korea, Japan, Iran, western Europe (Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and France being most impacted presently), and the United States.

-There is mounting evidence that the disease transmits most rapidly in relatively dry temperatures between 38 and 52 degrees Fahrenheit (with the middle of that band probably being most conducive to the spread).  This blogger will pat himself on the back and mention that last week he compared the temperatures of Wuhan in January; Seoul, Tokyo, Tehran, and Milan in February, and Seattle and NYC in March, and noted that they all appear markedly similar.

-While COVID 19 is present to some degree in warmer weather environments, the rates of growth there are significantly smaller than in moderately cold areas.  The rates of spread have also been lower in extremely cold areas.

-China (whose data is not reliable) reported a total of a little over 80,000 cases of COVID 19.  Italy is rapidly accelerating towards half that amount, and Spain appears to be following Italy’s lead (though having a few day head start to employ countermeasures will likely assist Spain in having a lesser impact than Italy has seen).

-The virus is deadly.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported a roughly 3.5% fatality rate based on its current information.

-However, and it’s a massive however, it is exceedingly likely that many people infected with COVID 19 and who recover are never diagnosed with the illness, meaning the actual death rate is probably substantially lower than the WHO reports.

-In the one contained experiment of COVID 19 – its breakout on the cruise ship “Diamond Princess” – roughly 700 of 3100 passengers were infected, and there were 7 deaths (a mortality rate of 1%).

-The mortality rate for COVID 19 skews older, and accelerates rapidly for people in their upper 70s, 80s, and beyond.  Not surprisingly, it is also most harmful to those with underlying conditions (i.e., healthy elderly people are at a lower risk).

-The early explosive spread of COVID 19 in Wuhan, later South Korea, and now Washington state in the USA (where new cases are down dramatically in a very short time) petered out very quickly.  This could be explained by drastic quarantine measures, though Washington state has not employed restrictions even close in degree to those effectuated in China or even South Korea.

-Because of the newness of COVID 19, there is no way of knowing whether there already exists some population-specific immunity to COVID 19.  This is a barely mentioned but critical fact, particularly in light of the above reality of the virus “hitting a wall” in its spread in certain locations.

Now that the currently-known facts have been laid out (and remember, the first reality is that we don’t know much at this time), the appropriate COVID 19 response is situation specific.  Decision makers must balance the health impacts of the virus with its other impacts, particularly economic ones (which are already profound and growing) and the potential that making draconian decisions with considerable economic consequences that end up being wrong will further undermine public trust in institutions when such trust already appears to be at a post-World War II low.

By situation specific, this blogger means and believes that promoting a nationwide lockdown and imposing huge restraints on American commerce is not only a bad – but a potentially catastrophic – idea.  There is a dearth of evidence that would support that claim that already hot Phoenix, Arizona is primed for a massive outbreak.  The same logic applies to Texas and much of the American South.  That said, where the spread of the virus may counsel for draconian economic limitations (presently the New York City metropolitan area, with rapid spread and temperatures in the zone of maximum danger, looks like a prime candidate), then they may be appropriate.  Even in “worst location” circumstances, the precipitous drop in cases in Washington state without such an all-encompassing shutdown should counsel caution when employing such measures.  There exists the distinct possibility that much of the population already possesses some level of immunity to COVID 19, and that even the most impacted locales may run out of vulnerable individuals susceptible to serious impacts from this virus in a much shorter time frame than is presently anticipated in any public discussion of the topic.

While most of the elite opinion is hyper focused on COVID 19 and its short term outbreak, the key decision makers in this nation must understand that the average American is still more focused on keeping his her or her job and making his or her rent payment.  And if unnecessarily draconian measures are effectuated in a manner that destroys the average person’s ability to meet his or her family’s basic needs, and then the virus itself turns out to be overhyped, the mass of the citizenry will neither be forgiving of elite mistakes nor should they be.  Accordingly, those with the public’s confidence should proceed with caution when contemplating massive restraints on American life.