Sometimes one’s soul is best served by issuing a cri de cœur. I want to scream and protest against today’s unprecedented (in my adult lifetime) long spasm of irrationality and madness. “Why,” I ask myself, “are so many people content to be denied context, perspective, and completeness of pictures?”
Even though this morning I was still far from being fully caffeinated when I visited the Washington Post website, I immediately grew highly agitated with frustration upon reading this headline: “Coronavirus threat rises across U.S.: ‘We just have to assume the monster is everywhere’.”
This description of the coronavirus threat as a “monster” comes from Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine. The Post obviously regards this description as valid and important – as front-webpage headline-worthy. This was the lead story in Sunday’s print edition, under the headline ”Experts push for new tack on virus.”
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the overall infection fatality rate of COVID-19 in the United States is 0.65%. This fact means that of every 2,000 people in the U.S. who are infected with COVID-19, 13 of them will die. Note that this number is not the risk of any randomly chosen person in America dying from COVID-19; it’s the risk of a COVID-infected American dying from this ailment. Because the risk of encountering the coronavirus and contracting COVID-19 is well below 100 percent, a randomly chosen American’s chances of dying from this disease is much lower than 0.65%.
And of course, as has been well covered here at AIER and at other sensible outlets such as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, even this small raw number can easily create fear out of proportion to reality. COVID is far more likely to kill the old and seriously ill than it is to kill any person chosen randomly off the streets of Cleveland or off of any farm in Ohio.
As I interpret the data, they show quite clearly that the typical American beneath the age of 70 and in reasonably good health has nothing much to fear from the coronavirus. Children and young adults are especially in no particular danger, but even middle-aged Americans are more likely to die from malignant cancer, heart disease, and automobile accidents and other unintentional injuries than from coming into contact with the coronavirus.
Yet a search of the Washington Post’s site turns up no front-page headline over the past 25 years describing cancer, heart disease, and auto accidents in any way that is categorically similar to the Post’s description of COVID as a “monster” that lurks “everywhere” and, hence, as a beast so dangerous and ubiquitous that we must avoid it by radically changing our way of life. And although I’ve not done a careful search, I’ll bet $100 that Mr. DeWine has never publicly described cancer, heart disease, and auto accidents in any fashion close to his description of coronavirus.
So why this description of COVID as a “monster” on the prowl “everywhere”? I will not here speculate on Gov. DeWine’s reason for so describing COVID, or on the Post’s motive for featuring his description approvingly in a headline. But whatever those motives are, if the words “monster” and “everywhere” are read with their usual meanings, this description is simply false. So stop! Please stop. No more of this fear-mongering bacchanalia.
How We Respond
Am I excessively, perhaps even irresponsibly, discounting COVID’s dangers? I claim no infallibility; perhaps I am indeed mistaken. Perhaps COVID really is the once-in-a-lifetime monster that Mr. DeWine, some writers at the Washington Post, and many other people believe it to be. But I offer two pieces of evidence to support my skepticism of the popular image of COVID.
The first piece of evidence – and on this matter you’ll have to take my word – is that I’ve become over the past several weeks worried not one bit about suffering from COVID. Early on – perhaps irrationally – I was worried a bit, but not greatly. Now – I think quite rationally – I’m not worried at all. This fact is so despite my not being, let’s us say, super-young. Next month I’ll turn 62. So despite being in good health, I am indeed nevertheless at more of a risk of suffering severely from COVID than are any of my students. Yet COVID frightens me no more than does driving an automobile or climbing (as I did recently) to the top stair of a step-ladder to change a lightbulb.
I wear a mask when I’m indoors in public places. I do so to avoid spreading COVID to others who are higher risks than I am. (As far as I’m aware, I’m COVID-free. But I’ve not been tested, so it’s possible that I have it.) If the only reason to wear a mask would be to protect myself from COVID, I’d never wear one. Or, to put this point somewhat differently, if my concern were only with myself, I’d be as likely to start wearing a mask in supermarkets and restaurants as I’d be to stop traveling to supermarkets and restaurants by automobile.
My second piece of evidence that COVID isn’t really a “monster” is the popular reaction to reports of famous, relatively young people testing positive for it. This reaction is … pretty blasé. Oh, newspapers breathlessly announce that, say, New Orleans Saints’ head coach Sean Payton, NBA superstar Kevin Durant, and Washington Nationals phenom Juan Soto tested positive for COVID. But no one really worries that these individuals will die or even suffer terribly from the disease. The expectation is that they’ll recover, and recover fully – which they nearly all do.
If COVID were truly a monster, learning that your favorite sports star has come down with COVID would cause you sadness of a sort that you’d suffer if you learned instead that that sports star had come down with pancreatic cancer or was severely injured in an automobile accident.
I cannot explain why the public reacts rationally – that is, without much concern – to news of famous young people testing positive for COVID but, to other news about COVID, reacts irrationally. This discrepancy itself only causes me to worry further about our ability, or willingness, to put COVID in proper perspective in order to restore some semblance of civilized modern life.
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Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and 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.