Covid-19 in Historical Perspective: A Speculation

by Don Boudreaux on January 25, 2021

in Cleaned by Capitalism, Current Affairs, Seen and Unseen

In this recent essay, John Tamny writes:

That so many dying with the virus are old and in nursing homes speaks to endless “success at every level.” It used to be in the 19th and early 20th century that those born had as good of a chance of dying as living, after which those who survived infancy realistically had no chance of expiring in nursing homes. For one, they didn’t exist. For two, pneumonia, tuberculosis and other near-certain killers got to Americans long before they could ever be committed to assisted living.

John hints at an important point that deserves to be made even more explicit – namely, Covid-19’s death rate might overstate Covid-19’s danger when reckoned historically.

Suppose that a virus nearly identical to SARS-CoV-2 had emerged on multiple – say, ten – different occasions between 1750 and 1900. Further suppose that the data that we have about the deaths caused by these earlier viruses are just as reliable as are the data that we have about deaths caused by Covid-19, but that we have no further reliable information about the nature of those earlier pathogens. Other than knowing that they were viruses, we cannot today tell that they were nearly identical to SARS-CoV-2.

What would these data show when compared to our current experience with Covid-19?

Answer: Compared to these earlier viruses, SARS-CoV-2 would appear from the data to be unusually lethal. The spike in deaths-per-million caused by Covid-19 would be higher than were the spikes caused by the earlier viruses. “See!” scold those who continue to warn us of Covid-19’s unusual lethality, “SARS-CoV-2, although not in the league of the 1918 virus, is nevertheless an unusually lethal monster.”

But such a claim would be overblown, and perhaps downright wrong.

In the past, the portion of the population who survived into very old age – or who survived serious illnesses – was smaller than it is today. Therefore, virus-ancestors of SARS-Cov-2 would have killed smaller fractions of earlier populations. And so those earlier outbreaks of viruses would appear, when compared to SARS-CoV-2, to be much less deadly – which is to say that SARS-CoV-2, when compared with these earlier outbreaks of viruses, would appear to be much more deadly.

Indeed, it’s possible that humanity has encountered on many occasions viruses very similar to today’s ‘novel’ coronavirus but that people remained unaware that these viruses were among them. Such lack of awareness would have been the case if the elderly and seriously ill population was insufficiently large as to have the deaths caused by these viruses numerous enough to be noticeable.

I have no idea if my speculation here has actual historical merit. But, in a way, that’s rather the point. If in the past human beings were killed off in sufficient numbers by other illnesses and accidents so that there remained alive too few elderly and ill people whose deaths from earlier versions of SARS-CoV-2 were noticeable, the historical record would contain no mention of any such viruses. Such viruses might well have swarmed among the population with some regularity but left no mark in the historical record because their consequences went unnoticed by our ancestors.

In short, as John Tamny notes, the apparent unusual lethality of SARS-CoV-2 might owe more to modernity’s success at keeping enough ill and old people alive to be killed by Covid-19 in notable numbers as it does to anything especially rare or super-dangerous about Covid-19.

My speculation here is akin to the “dry tinder” hypothesis that helps explain why Sweden’s death rate in 2020 was as high as it was in comparison to many other countries: The 2018-2019 flu season in Sweden being unusually mild compared to many other countries, the number of Swedes in 2020 who were especially vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 was unusually large compared to the number of vulnerable people in other countries. While the dry-tinder hypothesis helps explain cross-country differences in fatalities during the Covid-19 pandemic, my speculation – if it is correct – helps explain why Covid-19 fatalities are as high as they are.

Of course, even if my speculation is proven beyond any reasonable doubt to be correct, the proper inference is not that we should do nothing in response to Covid-19. We should not be indifferent to the deaths of old and ill people (a normative truth, by the way, that does not justify lockdowns). But knowledge of the correctness of my speculation would – again, were my speculation correct – help to tamp down the raging hysteria over Covid-19.


I have no idea if what I call here “my speculation” is unique to me. In fact, I suspect that it’s not. The point is too obvious not to have been thought of earlier. But I’ve yet to encounter it – or, I don’t recall encountering it – and this blog belongs to me!


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