Even as deaths from COVID-19 increase, proponents of reopening insist that they are not as significant as they appear. Liam Glen writes on the flaws in this argument.
For anyone arguing that the reaction to COVID-19 is overblown and we should all return to our normal lives, the typical first step is to claim that the number of people who have died from the virus is actually not that high.
In a late February campaign rally, President Donald Trump emphasized the thousands of deaths caused by the seasonal flu while boasting “so far we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States.”
As the death tolls rose, these types of arguments continued, even as they became bizarre. By March, Sean Hannity was trying to downplay coronavirus deaths by comparing them to the number of fatal shootings in Chicago. At a certain point, this becomes untenable.
By the end of April, the White House-favored model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasted 74,073 COVID-19 deaths in the United States by August. That number has already been superseded.
As of this writing, there have been 80,862 reported coronavirus deaths in the United States, accounting for over one fourth of COVID-19 deaths around the world. In the midst of this, it has become impossible to pretend that this is not a pressing crisis.
COVID-19 vs Other Causes of Death
It has been less than a full five months since the United States’ first confirmed case of COVID-19 in January. Since then, its death toll has surpassed that of all but the top seven leading causes of death in 2017.
Skeptics often compared COVID-19 to the flu, but it has already risen above the estimated deaths caused by the 2019-2020 flu season (between 24,000 and 62,000). In half a year, it has also killed more people than motor vehicle crashes (36,560) or opioid overdoses (46,802) did in the entirety of 2018.
Though, it is still not as great a killer as heart disease, cancer, or stroke, a fact that some will still use to assert that it is not such a big deal. The strategy of constantly bringing up these figures is intended to normalize COVID-19 deaths, so that we see the death from coronavirus not as a tragedy but as a simple fact of life like deaths from car accidents and the flu.
This is flawed, first of all, because we should not view preventable deaths as routine. It is shameful that so many people die from the flu when most years we have an effective vaccine. Likewise, we should be concerned that America has significantly more deaths from automobile accidents than other developed countries.
But, admittedly, there is no one arguing that we stop motor vehicle deaths altogether by banning cars and shutting down the highways. The drawbacks would outweigh the benefits. Someone might likewise say that shuttering the country is an overreaction to a disease that has killed fewer than 100,000 people. But this ignores a very basic trend about COVID-19.
The Nature of Contagion
First, the argument was that the coronavirus has yet to kill any Americans, so there was no need to worry. Then it was just a few hundred deaths, which was not much all things considered. Then there was a thousand, which was still no need for overreaction. Then it was 10,000, which was still much less than the flu. Now it is 80,000 and counting, and we are still hearing these arguments.
Infectious diseases are infectious. Even if the death rate seems relatively low at the moment, there is still a large probability that it will rise.
Similarly, arguments along the lines of “the virus wasn’t as bad as the worst-case scenarios predicted, so it’s safe to end the lockdowns” ignore the possibility that the lockdowns were the very things stopping the worst-case scenarios from coming into fruition.
But states around the country are nonetheless moving to reopen despite public health warnings. Epidemiological models show various possibilities for the future, but the general consensus is that we can expect cases to ebb and flow in waves until the population develops herd immunity or a vaccine is created, either of which could take years.
The human cost of this is difficult to predict, but the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (whose previous predictions were too low) now projects a total of 137,184 deaths in the United States by August 4. After that is anyone’s guess.
In late March, President Trump said that the United States will have done “a very good job” if it could keep COVID-19 deaths under 100,000. Now it is set to fail by even that metric.
Measuring the Value of a Life
The final argument, made by pundits like Ben Shapiro, is that COVID-19 disproportionately affects older individuals and those with preexisting health conditions who might already have died within the next few years, which is less of a tragedy than if it targeted the young and healthy.
This tends to draw strong reactions, in large part because it rests on philosophical views about the value of life. The common retort is that age should not be viewed as determinate of worth. If an 80-year-old is murdered, the courts still treat it as such. The suspect is unlikely to get a lighter sentence by arguing that the victim was statistically likely to die soon anyway.
On the other hand, society does tend to view it as a greater tragedy for a younger person to die than an older one. And policymakers do use tools like the disability-adjusted life year (DALY) when it comes to health issues, measuring the quantity and quality of lives lost rather than the simple death toll.
By either metric, though, COVID-19 is a catastrophe. Tens of thousands have died. Just because most of them were older does not mean that they did not have many worthwhile years ahead of them. And although they constitute a minority of the total, there are still young people dying from the virus. Measuring years lost due to the coronavirus would be a harder endeavor than simple death rate, but the number would surely be significant.
Regardless of what policy approach we adopt in response to COVID-19, we must start with the understanding that it is one of the greatest crises of our time. Any attempts to pretend otherwise have become increasingly delusional.