Wrecking the economy with discredited computer models

Neil Ferguson, a mathematical epidemiologist at Imperial College London, panicked policy makers around the world when he released his computer model projecting that the coronavirus pandemic would result in 500,000 deaths in the U.K. and 2.2 million in the U.S.

It is hard to understand why his pronouncement was accepted so uncritically when he has a history of being wrong.  Very wrong.

According to The Spectator, in 2005, Ferguson said that up to 200 million people could be killed from bird flu.  The actual number was several hundred.

In 2009, he gave an estimate of 65,000 deaths from the Swine Flu in the U.K.  U.K.  deaths actually numbered fewer than 500.

Ferguson's dangerously inflated computer models have led to policies that are wrecking the American economy.

The specter Ferguson predicted created understandable fear that a flood of COVID-19 patients would quickly overwhelm the medical system.  In order to prevent an influx into the hospitals, we were told that it was critical to "flatten the curve" — in other words, to slow the spread of disease and space out the cases needing hospitalization over a longer period of time.

President Trump announced guidelines he called "Fifteen Days to Slow the Spread."  Notice that it said to slow the spread, not thwart infections.  This was extended an additional 30 days to the end of April.  Because Americans have taken the social distancing and stay-at-home recommendations to heart, flattening the curve has been very successful.

Thankfully, the projected deaths Ferguson forecast were incredibly inflated, and it is now possible that the death rate may be no greater than that experienced in some years with the annual flu.  In 2018, the CDC reported that 80,000 Americas had died of flu the previous winter.

All deaths are tragic, but no government policy is capable of preventing death.  It is now clear that most COVID-19 deaths involve persons with underlying medical conditions              and nearly half are occurring in nursing homes.  Researchers now believe that more than 80 percent of the population has little or nothing to fear from the coronavirus.  Public policy should focus on protecting those at high risk and allowing the rest of us to get on with a normal life.

Many hospital beds remain unused, doctors and nurses have been laid off, and hospitals are in financial trouble because they are not allowed to provide non-COVID "elective" care.  As the shutdown and isolation continue, they will cost lives lost to depression, alcohol, drugs, suicide, and people who are not being treated for medical needs.

The medical system is no longer in danger of collapse, but thousands of small business that are the backbone of the middle class in America are.  There are already many casualties, and countless more small businesses will go under permanently if they are not allowed to open quickly.

In normal times, small businesses struggle to compete with big box stores.  Giving large retailers the opportunity to stay in business and capture more market share while forcing small businesses to be closed has been patently unfair.  Walmart recently  announced it would be adding 150,000 employees to meet "'demand in our stores" while record numbers of employees of small businesses have lost their jobs.  It is not the prerogative of government to decide which jobs and businesses are essential.

If large stores can be open, with social distancing and other measures to protect their workers, many small retailers can be equally safe.  In fact, many shoppers would feel much safer donning a mask and going to the local paint store or card shop than standing in line waiting to get into or check out at a big box store. 

Throughout the country, governors have lost track of the intent of the social distancing guidelines, which were expected to slow, not prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus.  Without a vaccine (which may or may not be found), sooner or later, most of the population will contract the virus, developing herd immunity,

Instead of doubling down on social isolation, governors must reopen the economy, protect vulnerable Americans, allow people to get back to work, and provide for their families.  Lockdowns, unemployment checks, and federal bailouts are unsustainable and will bankrupt the country.  We should not continue wrecking the economy and mortgaging the nation's future over excessive fears created by a discredited computer model.   

The author is a former minority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates and former U.S. assistant secretary of state.