The case that mainstream coronavirus forecasts are too gloomy

The estimable Richard Epstein offers a contrarian view of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis. He argues that panic over the virus is significantly overblown.

Epstein writes:

[I]t seems more probable than not that the total number of cases world-wide will peak out at well under 1 million, with the total number of deaths at under 50,000 (up about eightfold). In the United States, if the total death toll increases at about the same rate, the current 67 deaths should translate into about 500 deaths at the end.

Of course, every life lost is a tragedy—and the potential loss of 50,000 lives world-wide would be appalling—but those deaths stemming from the coronavirus are not more tragic than others, so that the same social calculus applies here that should apply in other cases.

Epstein levels criticisms at models predicting many millions of infections, and up to 1 million deaths, in America. His criticisms seem persuasive.

As for Epstein’s defense of his own forecasts, you can be the judge. For me, his predictions seem optimistic — a best case scenario — but more realistic than the gloomy predictions he attacks.

What public policy consequences follow from Epstein’s model and predictions? He says:

[T]he stakes are too high to continue on the current course [of wholesale closures and social isolation] without reexamining the data and the erroneous models that are predicting doom.

At the same time, Epstein acknowledges that (1) “the amount of voluntary and forced separation in the United States has gotten very extensive very quickly, which should influence rates of infection sooner rather than later” and (2) there is considerable uncertainty about how widespread and deadly the virus will prove to be.

As to the second point, we know what has happened with the virus in China and have a fair idea of what will happen in South Korea. However, we don’t know how things will play out in Italy. Epstein expects to see a decline of deaths in Italy similar to China’s, but we don’t know.

I agree with Epstein that we need to keep examining the data, rather than relying on erroneous gloomy models to determine public policy. But I think we should await more data, such as that which will soon emerge from Italy, and, of course data from the U.S., before making major adjustments to the extremely cautious polices that have been put in place during the last few days.