Whither Coronavirus?

We are all getting mightily tired of the Wuhan virus, but it is with us still. Newspapers continue to chronicle “grim milestones,” and the virus looms large in this year’s elections. Some states that relaxed shutdown orders have seen a spike in corona cases, and a few have reinstituted drastic measures.

Meanwhile, there are still many things about the virus we do not know. It has little or no effect on most who catch it, but severely impacts others. The reasons are obscure. It is reasonable to assume that having had the virus will, as is true for nearly all viruses, confer some degree of immunity. But we don’t know how reliable such immunity is, or how long it will last.

We also don’t know what treatment protocols will be most successful. No doubt, behind the scenes doctors are exchanging clinical information and steadily improving their knowledge of how to treat Wuhan patients. But we do not know to what degree successful treatments have been identified. And, while many pin their hopes on a vaccine, we have no idea whether a successful vaccine will be found, or how long it will take to thoroughly test and then deploy it.

Despite those uncertainties, this is a good time to step back and assess where we are, here in the U.S., in the COVID epidemic. Daily headlines lack perspective, and usually are driven by political considerations. So let’s review some basic facts.

The numbers suggest that the COVID epidemic is more or less over, as far as fatality is concerned. This chart is a screen shot from the CDC web site. It shows total deaths from all causes, the most objective measure of the impact the Wuhan virus is having, at least with regard to fatality. (In some states, maybe all, authorities classify deaths as COVID without any pretense that the virus was the cause of death.) As you can see, the total number of deaths has returned to the pre-epidemic baseline. COVID is no longer causing any excess number of fatalities in the U.S.:

Could the number of excess COVID deaths rise as America reopens? It is possible, but the trend line looks pretty inexorable.

Next, let’s put the global and U.S. COVID fatality numbers in perspective, compared with other historical events and the normal flu viruses that we see every year. A note of caution: it is not clear that apples-to-apples comparisons can be made, since COVID reporting is so heavily politicized. Today, some states (maybe all) classify deaths in the COVID column even though the virus was plainly not the cause of death. Was this true in prior flu epidemics? I doubt it, but have no idea how we can know at this point.

This is a graph I have posted before, but with a couple of additions. It shows the average number of fatalities worldwide due to the annual flu virus, per the World Health Organization, and the current number of COVID-19 deaths from the same source. It then shows the deaths attributed to the 1957-58 Asian flu, and the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu, with both of those numbers adjusted for U.S. population, along with the fatality numbers for the annual flu virus of 2017-18 and the current COVID fatality number, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

What do these numbers tell us? The Wuhan virus is now worse, worldwide, than the average seasonal flu, although it still has not reached what the WHO identifies as the upper bound of a normal flu season, which is around 650,000 fatalities. No doubt it will eventually surpass that number.

As for the U.S., the Wuhan virus is now significantly more lethal than the seasonal flu of two years ago. I should hope so! But it still hasn’t reached, on a population-adjusted basis, the flu epidemics of 1957-58 and 1968-69. Maybe it will get to those numbers eventually.

What is striking is not so much the objective data, but rather the hysterical reaction to COVID-19. I was a kid at the time, but I do remember the 1957-58 Asian flu. On the other hand, I have zero memory of a disease going around in 1968-69, when I was a college student. It was not a news story, as far as I can recall, and certainly not a political issue.

What is different about COVID-19 is not the disease. Indeed, we are fortunate that it is not worse. When the numbers are all in, it will prove to be somewhat more lethal than the average flu virus, but of the same order of magnitude. We are lucky: the next epidemic could easily involve a disease ten times as lethal as the Wuhan virus, or even 100 times as lethal.

What is different this time is not the virus, but rather the political reaction to the virus. In 1957 and 1968, I don’t think it occurred to anyone to blame the virus on the government. Nor was there any hysteria about the government’s “response” to the virus. It was assumed, sensibly, that you can pass all the laws you want, but the virus won’t obey them.

This time it is different, as we all know. For the most part, hysteria over the coronavirus is simply political opportunism. But it also reflects the childish assumption, which pervades our politics, that every single thing that goes wrong is somehow the government’s responsibility, and it is up to the government to fix it.

This is why we see scrambling at every level of government to “do something” about the coronavirus. But in my opinion, there is little evidence that anything governments do will make much difference. This is the exception: governments can keep COVID out of nursing homes. The failure to do so explains the horrific numbers in states like New York and Minnesota.

Beyond that, what is a governor or, more remotely still, a president to do? Shutdowns can slow the spread of the virus, although at almost unfathomable cost. But no one thinks shutdowns can last forever. When they are lifted, surprise! The virus resumes its inexorable spread. In California, that obvious fact caused Governor Newsom to re-institute his shutdown order. Here is a bold prediction: when the current shutdown is lifted, the virus will once again continue to spread. Are we going to see this cycle of shutdowns and spiking “cases,” the vast majority of which are harmless, for years to come?

I think we will–unless, of course, Joe Biden wins in November. In that case, I expect that coronavirus hysteria will quietly fade away. People will still get sick, and a few of them, generally the aged and infirm, will die. But for the government and the press, it will be back to business as usual. And maybe someday there will be an effective and widely deployed vaccine. Don’t hold your breath. Meanwhile, I am not yet convinced that the net effect of governments’ anti-COVID actions, at all levels, has been, or will be, positive.