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On the Significance of Covid-Victims’ Age Profile

Here’s a letter to a new correspondent:

Ms. H___:

Thanks for your e-mail.

Unhappy with my recent criticism of Tyler Cowen, you defend his insistence on treating as largely irrelevant the fact that Covid-19 reserves the overwhelming bulk of its dangers for very old people. You write that in my criticism of Tyler’s stance I “dodge Professor Cowen’s very appropriate comparison of Covid-19 to Pearl Harbor and 9/11.”

With respect, I disagree.

Here’s what Tyler says on this matter: “But, ultimately when bad things happen on a certain scale – you know, Pearl Harbor, 9/11 – you don’t worry too much how many young people died, how many old people died.”

Even ignoring the reality that coronaviruses, unlike bomber pilots and airplane hijackers, aren’t sentient creatures, his comparison fails. Military invasions and terrorist attacks are far less discriminatory than is Covid in choosing victims.

Suppose (contrary, of course, to fact) that intelligence on the morning of December 8th, 1941, had revealed that the Japanese military was hellbent on targeting a significant majority of its fire power only at American retirees and wasn’t much interested in inflicting harm on the young or even the middle-aged. That is, suppose that intelligence had revealed about the Japanese-military’s targets what we have long known about Covid – specifically now, that Covid ‘targets’ 81 percent of its lethality in the U.S. at people 65 and older – surely we in the 1940s would have focused a great deal of our defensive efforts on protecting older Americans. Had government leaders ignored this feature of Japanese military strategy – had these leaders acted as if children and even middle-aged adults were at no less risk than were retirees – had these officials sent everyone equally into a fright and then indiscriminately corralled children, young adults, and the middle-aged into bomb shelters along with the elderly – history would today regard these ‘leaders’ as having acted with criminal recklessness for failing to focus protective efforts on those who were clearly at disproportionate risk.

Ditto, of course, if we had good reason to believe that terrorists are intent on aiming nearly all of their evil at retirees.

I’m sorry, but I see no merit in Tyler’s case for ignoring, when it comes to policy, the reality that a huge majority of Covid’s victims are old people and that most Americans simply do not suffer a significantly elevated risk of harm from this disease. I believe, indeed, that this fact needs to be trumpeted much more loudly and widely.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030