COVID-19 and the Politics of Fear and Panic

We are in the midst of a cold-virus pandemic.  As of March 31, its worldwide mortality ratio is 4.9% and 1.9% in the U.S.  Both of these mortality ratios lie within the range of mortality from seasonal influenza epidemics of recent years, which range from fractions of a percent (U.S.) to upwards of 5%.  Thus, the 1,012 and 451 deaths caused by Sweden's previous two flu seasons accounted for 4.9% and 3.3% of confirmed cases, respectively.  The mortality ratio of Sweden's current COVID-19 epidemic falls exactly midway between these flu percentages, at 4.1% (180 dead of 4,435 confirmed cases, March 31 figures).  In all these cases, the age distribution of risk of dying from the virus is similar, being concentrated in the elderly and those with otherwise compromized health status.

According to these numbers, we appear to be dealing with a viral infection that, as far as its deadliness is concerned, lies within the range of previous years' flu epidemics, apparently with a more aggressive respiratory profile than we are used to, but not with exceptionally high mortality.  Yet neither in Sweden nor anywhere else did the seasonal flu epidemics of past years, with mortality ratios comparable to the current pandemic, lead to lockdowns or other drastic measures.  Were the lives of the elderly and those with otherwise compromized health worth less in previous years than they are now?  No, instead, it appears that, unlike the epidemics of recent years, this one has been accompanied by a worldwide mass panic.  It drives drastic measures imposed on whole populations, measures that vary from country to country, but which everywhere are adopted without a basis in knowable and foreseeable consequences as far as social disruption and economic devastation are concerned.  At this point, we have no idea whether one or another society, perhaps the one in which we live, is capable of weathering proplonged imposition of these government-mandated measures, because no precedent exists for such a course of action in modern times.  In figurative terms, we are in the process of jumping off a cliff in order to avert deaths that only one year ago were considered the regrettable toll of the seasonal flu.

The panic originated in the same place as the virus: China.  After having failed to suppress news of the Wuhan outbreak despite trying, the Chinese dictatorship had to save face by showing that it was in full command of the situation.  To do so, it resorted to means that only a dictatorship has at its disposal in ordinary times: storm-trooper tactics under imposition of what amounts to martial law.  The rest of the world, seeing leaked photos and footage of the rampage, concluded that this must be a terribly dangerous virus because such drastic measures are needed to combat it.  As the figures in my introductory paragraph tell us, that conclusion is based not on the behavior of the virus, but on the behavior of the Chinese dictatorship.  Rattled by the Chinese example, the rest of the world, acting on a false estimate of the danger it faced, responded as if the bubonic plague were knocking on its door.

Hard on the heels of the Chinese example came model-based predictions from epidemiologist Neil Ferguson and his COVID-19 Response Team at Imperial College London.  His "worst case" scenario predicted 510,000 deaths in Britain and 2.2 million dead in the U.S.  With the Chinese images fresh in mind, it was Ferguson's worst-case scenario, rather than his caveats and cautions, that gained public attention and helped legitimate drastic and unprecedented peacetime measures to combat the virus.  In this climate, the British government revised its strategy to conform more closely with the Imperial College team's recommendations.  The day after this was done, Ferguson presented drastically revised estimates of expected mortality in testimony to a U.K. partliamentary committee.

The sudden change from a no-intervention scenario of 510,000 dead to a "current measures continued" estimate of 20,000 dead was not, however, solely the result of the expected effectiveness of the measures adopted by the British government.  What non-pharmaceutical interventions could be that effective?  No, it involved a revision of the crucial "basic reproduction number" of the Imperial College model, forced by European data indicating a faster spread than assumed in the original model.  The crucial reproduction number is an estimate.  For COVID-19, modelers have set it anywhere from 1.4 to 3.9.  It was set to 2.5 in Ferguson's original model, but according to his testimony, it should be "a little bit above the order of three or a little bit above rather than about 2.5."  These "little bits" and "orders of" and "abouts" matter a lot, because they affect estimates of the number of infected individuals in the population.  That number appears in the denominator of the mortality ratio and thus affects the mortality estimate directly, which accordingly came tumbling down with the revised reproduction number.

Government policy influenced by models whose predictions can change by a factor of 25 from one day to the next is a reality that is most uncomfortable to contemplate.  The fact that predictions from such fickle models find their way into government policy affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions is ominous.  While the coronavirus is the current focus of expert advice regarding massive government intervention in the lives of citizens, it was but a few months ago that hardly a day went by without calls being issued for drastic governmental measures to avert a climate catastrophe claimed to threaten us on the basis of models that climatologists such as MIT's Richard Lindzen regard as woefully incomplete.

Both crisis scenarios are premised on the assumption of a threat so dire, so out of the ordinary, and so imminent that extraordinary measures are needed to combat it and are needed right now.  On such assumptions, if we are to err, we are to err on the side of caution, and thus should prefer the more drastic to the less drastic proposed remedies (worst-case scenarios).  They also invite attempts at end runs around democratic procedure and the rule of law in furtherance of urgent remedial action.

The sense of crisis, fueled by the perceived size, immediacy, and severity of danger, narrows the focus of public concern and public policy to the crisis topic itself.  In so doing, it usurps the complex trade-off relations in which the many components of a functioning society are locked into one another, and so inevitably damages that functioning.  That is ultimately the reason we do not shut down road traffic to save the many lives that could be saved by so doing.  It is also why, until a few weeks ago, we did not shut down the social order in attempts to prevent the deaths inevitably caused by cold-virus epidemics, but accepted them with regret and sorrow.

In either case, the consequences of any measure, not only for its intended target, but for the functioning of the social order as a whole, must be reckoned with in responsible decision-making.  Such decision-making looks to the consequences for the whole of measures directed at any of its parts.  Leadership, by the same token, consists of hewing to the needs of the whole and refusing to let the politics of fear and panic dictate measures that, however well intentioned, are bound to eventually exact a greater toll in total suffering than the suffering saved by those measures.  Whether such leadership exists in today's world, caught in the COVID-19 pandemic panic, remains to be seen.

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