As you know, the coronavirus—if you catch it, and get very sick—is a terrible thing to go through and you may even die. The virus and the fear of it are sorely testing our medical capacity in some places. And the body count will get much worse this week, right before Easter. The heroic efforts and sacrifice of many doctors, nurses, and volunteer civilians are all notable and praiseworthy. Millions of Americans are pulling together. We all know this. But do you know the odds of any American getting this virus? One would think that number is easily known or available. It’s not. A lot of digging into various municipal data portals reveals, based on the population tested, that rates can vary from, at most, eight-tenths of a percent in New York City to two-one-hundredths of a percent in Phoenix.
Did you know the chances of recovery from the coronavirus are about 98%—if you catch it? Did you know there are models showing 50% of the population may have already had it, never knew they had it, and recovered? Again, one would think this data would be widely available and reported. It isn’t. What is presented widely are numbers and warnings that scare and frighten us, and we are now being conditioned to a lot of panic and speculation. But part of the reason we are getting conditioned to a lot of panic is because of the wide range of speculation about other numbers we accept as our new fright-inducing reality, an increasingly confusing and frenzied set of numbers. And the normalization of our panic is having dire consequences and augurs for even worse.
Our officials and media have warned us of 2 million deaths in the United States. Then 200,000 deaths. Then 100,000 to 240,000. This needs to stop. There have been a total of 68,000 coronavirus deaths worldwide. And we are told we will see, just in America, three to four times that number. Does that even pass the plausibility test?
Is it too much to ask for some perspective with numbers we do know about, numbers which have never shut down our country, much less a church or synagogue, much less entire industries; numbers which have never restricted travel or put this nation into one big frenzy? In any given month in America, we lose about 54,000 Americans to heart disease; 50,000 to cancer; 14,000 to asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema; 12,000 to stroke; 10,000 to Alzheimer’s; 7,000 to diabetes; 5,600 to drug overdoses; and 4,700 to influenza and pneumonia. Since February, in America, coronavirus: 9,500. Where is the sympathy for the victims and families of those other causes of death? The daily mortality count? The blaring headlines? The upending of the country? We hear almost nothing about them. Those deaths give us over 157,000 deaths a month. Given all that is being done about one cause of death, COVID-19, it turns out this is a very advantaged disease, indeed. And we will in time develop a vaccine for it, not to mention more and more good news coming in the short term about treatments from other extant medicines like hydroxychloroquine.
But there is more. With all the blaring chyrons and death and disease counts, has anyone tried to search for the average age of the death toll from this pathogen? It’s very hard to do—though we are told the virus more maleficently affects those over 65, and is worse with each year of age. Why do you think this point, this fact, is not everywhere available? Could it be there is an investment and interest in scaring all of us? You can find some stories with state and local data, but isn’t it interesting the general data is not available? Our best analysis shows in New York City 70% of the deaths are of those over age 65. And almost all deaths across all age groups come with underlying conditions. New York has a serious problem and requires great effort and attention, which is being applied. But the fact that the virus is having its way there does not mean that it is making its way anywhere or everywhere. States with even greater populations, like California and Texas, are showing death rates 90% lower than New York. States like Iowa and Minnesota have low numbers, too—but Iowa is not in lockdown and Minnesota is.
Is there perhaps not a smarter way to address this plague other than mass immuration? Sequestering those who are elderly with underlying conditions, those who test positive, and those who are symptomatic “while basically treating the rest of society the way we have always dealt with familiar threats like the flu” is how Thomas Friedman put it early on. He and Dr. David L. Katz of Yale called this a vertical strategy. The horizontal strategy of “restricting the movement and commerce of the entire population, without consideration of varying risks for severe infection,” is too blunt, too paralyzing—and too malefic.
Let’s go back to drug overdoses for a moment. The president spoke a great deal about them on the campaign trail in 2016, and has held several summits and briefings on the problem since his presidency. We who have been involved in these issues for decades have been accused of waging an irrational “drug war.” Did we ever contemplate curbing the constitutional freedoms of nearly 300 million Americans? Did the media ever publish or emblazon its television coverage with panic-inducing death counts? Did we ever suggest shelter-in-place orders to clean the streets of illegal drug activity or shut down industries causing unemployment to skyrocket and retirement savings accounts to plunge? Of course not, though its high body count and cost affects a great many more families and businesses, and kills the young more than the old. Fighting this problem, the country was able to keep its wits, even as we who tried to do something about it were denounced for taking draconian measures to save lives. Turns out we had no idea what draconian was. When the president linked that problem to the coronavirus, as he did this past week, the media turned away and criticized him. Only one cause of death matters to them, the one that invaded us on his watch.
Meanwhile, we know a few things about the causes and effects of the shutdowns—and they will exacerbate all kinds of other deaths mentioned above. As the Wall Street Journal recently put it, “The economic and social-science literature is replete with studies that document the harm to people from recessions and economic hardship—including higher rates of suicide, opioid abuse, alcoholism and domestic violence.” As for drug and alcohol relapses, the director of a major addiction institute recently put it thusly: “I’m hard-pressed to think of a bigger relapse trigger than what we’re going through now as a country.” Are we now done with diseases of despair and social destruction or, more likely, are we now creating a whole new contagion of those?
Yet the elites, from Bill Gates down, tell us we need a nationwide shutdown for 10 weeks or more. Others are pushing in that direction, too, putting pressure on various state and federal officials for even more coercion. Perhaps such pushing has its merits in saving some lives, but it will likely take more, and will kill the heart and soul of our country, which is dependent on the economic engine of the rest of us. The consequences of what this country is putting itself through simply cannot be understated. They are affecting the low-skilled and blue-collar workers the hardest. And the solutions the federal and state governments have ordered for the problems they have created—from stimulus checks to loans to abatements and reprieves—are already causing bureaucratic confusion, claims of unfairness, delays, and pitting Americans against each other. And now there is no end in sight for even more massive and unprecedented spending.
The president’s instincts to re-open this country as soon as possible are right. This country is not prepared for a worsening of all the other social harms and deaths brought on by an incredibly overwrought, self-induced, hysteria and panic that doesn’t parse. It better be. But remember with all the nonprofits, volunteer, and self-help communities organized to address these problems being shuttered and harmed, direly and financially, be prepared for massive social failure and more death. This is what happens when sanity is at discount and hysteria reigns supreme. This is what happens when societies get used to pandemonium. As bad as the coronavirus is, and it is bad, unless we arrest the frenzy and panic mongering, we should be prepared for things worse than the virus.
William J. Bennett is the former secretary of education and director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy.
Seth Leibsohn is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and the host of "The Seth Leibsohn Show," heard daily on 960am/KKNT in Phoenix, Ariz.