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Mystified by the Reaction to Covid-19

In my latest column for AIER, I again express my mystification at so many people’s disproportionate fear of Covid-19 – disproportionate fear that fuels disproportionate, destructive, deranged responses. A slice:

And so here’s a feature of Covid that I do incessantly wonder about: What’s so special about this communicable and dangerous disease that causes humanity to treat it as differing categorically from the countless other communicable and dangerous diseases that we regard with utter blasé-ness?

It won’t do to answer that Covid’s lethality is higher than normal. Such an answer, strictly speaking, implies that lockdowns, masks, “social distancing,” and all the other arbitrary exercises of massive government powers and antisocial behaviors that are justified as necessary to fight Covid-19 become appropriate the moment we encounter a disease that is even slightly more dangerous than ‘normal.’

How much higher than normal must rise the lethality of a communicable pathogen in order to justify the sort of wholesale rearrangement of human existence, and crushing of human freedom, that we’ve suffered over the past eleven months? Pro-lockdowners ignore this question. They simply assume that Covid’s dangers are so much higher than normal as to make Covid unquestionably a categorically different threat, one that justifies categorically different responses.

It would be nice to get some specifics. For example, how much more lethal than the flu must a contagious disease be in order to justify lockdowns? Five hundred percent? One hundred percent? Five percent? Exactly where does Covid sit on the spectrum of less-than-normal to more-than-normal lethality? And where on that spectrum does a disease’s danger transform it categorically from less-dangerous ones?

According to the OhioHealth blog, whose proprietors recently compared Covid-19 to the flu, Covid kills 1.6 percent of the people who contract it while the flu kills 0.1 percent of its carriers. This difference is significant. But does it put Covid into an altogether different category of diseases? Does it justify the hysteria of the past year and the resulting lockdowns?

Because on these numbers Covid is 16 times more likely to kill its victims than is the flu, a tentative answer of ‘yes’ might be given. Yet it’s fair to wonder – as does Bryan Caplan – why the response to Covid isn’t more proportional to Covid’s dangers. While I know of no credible quantification of society’s defensive reaction to Covid compared to society’s defensive reaction to the flu, my sense is that the Covid lockdowns and other unprecedented measures undertaken in the name of prevention are magnitudes more than 16 times greater than are the measures that humanity regularly undertakes to avoid the flu.

If you doubt my sense, consider the measures taken to avoid the flu. At the collective level, almost no such measures are taken – this despite the flu’s contagiousness and lethality. CNN doesn’t offer daily counts of flu infections and deaths. Schools don’t close despite children being at greater risk from the flu than from Covid. And neither Neil Ferguson nor Anthony Fauci scare us with descriptions of worst-case scenarios of the flu’s spread.

What few measures are taken in response to the flu are taken voluntarily by individuals. People get flu shots and stay home when they’re ill. Some die, are grieved by their loved ones, and are buried without their funerals being filmed and shown sensationally on TV.