Every Year an Epidemic: Say Goodbye to Normal Winters

We all remember the horrible fall and winter of 2017-2018, when a terrible epidemic ravaged America.  Schools closed, restaurants shut down, and sporting events were canceled to control the monster, but it still killed 90,000 men and women.

You don’t remember the closings and cancellations because they never happened.  But the epidemic did occur. According to CDC statistics, during the 2017-2018 flu season influenza killed 46,000 to 95,000 people.  (The CDC estimates deaths in a range because a definitive diagnosis of the cause of death via respiratory failure is often impossible.) 

Ninety thousand deaths is the high end of the estimate, but it is still a quite possible death toll.  CDC suggests that the most likely death toll was 61,000.  An average year statistic for influenza deaths in the U.S. over the past decade is about 40,000. 

No one panicked in 2017-2018.  Yet in 2020 we shut down America because of an epidemic that had killed less than fifty people.  The CDC estimated 45 million people in 2017-2018 were stricken with influenza in the U.S.  Currently, 200,0000 people are victims of COVID-19 worldwide.

The doomsayers will object that 2020 is different because of the extreme potential for a horrendous death toll.  The low current death toll is meaningless; we must shut down everything to prevent a massive increase in the future.  Today, fifty deaths. If we don’t shut down, tomorrow 500, in six weeks 5,000.

But 5,000 is still a lot less than 90,000 or even 61,000.  And as we know from 1918, it’s quite possible for influenza to develop into a ravenous monster that can kill millions.  The 1918 influenza killed 500,000 Americans when our total population was only 103 million. So the same argument for a shutdown could have applied in 2017-2018.

The doomsayers will object that the death rate for COVID-19 is much greater than influenza.  But statistics from South Korea, the country with the most comprehensive testing program (and therefore the best estimate of the number of people infected) indicate that the virulence of COVID-19 is about the same as influenza: less than 1% (.6%).  Like influenza, it is overwhelmingly a killer of old people.  And the death rate from the 1918 influenza was much higher than COVID-19.

Every argument made today for shutting down America should have applied to 2017-2018.  Why was there no panic then?  It was President Trump’s first winter in the White House, and the anti-Trump mania had not yet festered into full-blown hysteria.  It was just the flu, and if we accept the 61,000 estimate, only about 50% above the average level of influenza deaths in a typical American flu season.

But that attitude is gone forever. If the CDC announces in the fall that America is on pace for 61,000 influenza deaths, we will have another panic, especially if the number of American deaths from the COVID-19 epidemic is ultimately very low.  Over the six months of fall, winter, and spring that produce nearly all the influenza deaths in the U.S., a death toll of 61,000 is an average of 2,500 per week.  Since the death toll would be much higher in the peak winter months, it would certainly top 3,000 in some weeks.  Three thousand deaths in a week! The cries of “shut it down” will ring throughout the land.  It is unconscionable, the doomsayers will shout, to accept 61,000 deaths as a normal winter statistic. We must save lives!  You can’t put a price on human life!

Nearly every winter, if a Republican is president, the Democrats will excoriate him for standing by and letting thousands die.  If a Democrat is in office, he will leap at the chance to declare a crisis and use it to extend the power of government and enact his pet projects, especially in the area of medical care.  Currently, every governor is competing to be the most proactive in shutting down his state to prove how much he cares.  The governor of Virginia just enacted another draconian wave of prohibitions in a state where two people have died of COVID-19.   That attitude will not just disappear after this crisis is over.

Winter will never be the same.  If the NBA and the NHL are to survive, they will need to develop a structure in which they can earn a profit while playing to empty arenas or cancelling games for at least a few weeks every winter.  Restaurants will have to develop a business model that allows them to make a profit while shutting down for weeks or months every winter.  For average Americans, winter may become a dreary and lonely desert of hoarding supplies, enduring constant hectoring from the government, and hunkering down in their homes.

“Justin Geoffrey” is the pseudonym of a proud Southerner, a rabid sports fan, a PHD (from a prestigious university), and a conservative for half a century. He blogs at jgeoffrey@blogspot.com.

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