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A Curve Ball Isn’t an Existential Threat

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In my latest column for AIER I argue that Covid-19 is a curve ball rather than a threat to humanity categorically different from any of many that we routinely encounter [2]. A slice:

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported [3] that Covid-19 is estimated to be “about six times as deadly as the seasonal flu.” In order to account for the (hardly as yet confirmed) assertions that many people who are not killed by Covid will nevertheless be left by it with long-lasting debilitating ailments, let’s estimate Covid’s danger as being 12 times that of the flu. Are we close to a doomsday-asteroid scenario?

No. Not remotely.

My George Mason University colleague Bryan Caplan, blogging at EconLog, asked this sensible question [4]: “If coronavirus is ten times worse than flu, perhaps we should make ten times as much effort to combat it, not a thousand times?” Substituting “twelve” for “ten,” I ask the very same question.

What efforts do we exert to combat the flu? Very few, despite the fact that the flu annually kills, in the U.S. alone, tens of thousands of people [5]. Individuals with flu-like symptoms go to their doctors. Many of these individuals also take some time off of work and take some medications. Governments do little beyond encouraging people to get seasonal flu shots, which many people get (while many others don’t).

A worthwhile research project for some graduate student or assistant professor would be to calculate an estimate of the monetary measure of society’s average annual effort undertaken in response to the flu. This figure can then be compared to the total size of the response to Covid. I don’t dare here guess the details of what such research would turn up, but I’m quite sure – as in willing-to-bet-my-pension-against-one-dollar sure – that the magnitude of the response to Covid is many multiples of 12 times the effort routinely devoted to combating the flu. Bryan Caplan’s suggestion that the response to Covid has been 1,000 times greater than the response to the flu seems to me to be, if anything, too conservative.

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