COVID and the Death of Common Sense

Why are so many panicked over the Wuhan flu, a relatively minor disease? Of course, COVID can be deadly, like virtually all diseases, but if you are 25 or under it is less lethal than an average seasonal flu, and it is overwhelmingly the very elderly and infirm who are at risk. So why the hysteria?

In part, at least, because most people have a wildly distorted idea of the disease’s impact. Lionel Shriver writes at the Spectator:

There’s nothing unprecedented about COVID-19 itself. The equally novel, equally infectious Asian flu of 1957 had commensurate fatalities in Britain: scaled up for today’s population, the equivalent of 42,000, while the UK’s (statistically flawed) COVID death total now stands at 46,000. Globally, the Asian flu was vastly more lethal, causing between two and four million deaths. The Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 also slew up to four million people worldwide, including 80,000 Britons. Yet in both instances, life went on.

What is unprecedented: never has a virus been so oversold.

That is the reality. Now comes the hype:

In a recent Kekst CNC poll, British respondents estimated that nearly 7 percent of the UK population has died from the coronavirus. That would be 4.5 million people. Scots supposed that more than 10 percent of the UK population has died. That would be seven million people. Astonishingly, Americans believed that COVID has killed nine percent of their compatriots, or almost 30 million people! The real US total has indeed crossed the milestone of 150,000, but for pity’s sake, ‘only’ 20 million people died in World War One.

Rush Limbaugh talked about this survey on the air a week ago. How in the world can people have such an exaggerated idea of the Wuhan flu’s impact? Part of the answer is media hype, obviously. Daily press briefings by government officials trying to assure the public they are “doing something,” scare headlines in which “case” numbers are trumpeted, and so on, obviously have inflated the virus’s image.

Still, it is hard to understand how anyone could think that 9 percent of all Americans–30 million!–have died from COVID. If that were true, then all of us would know any number of people who had not just caught COVID, but died from it. I, personally, do not know a single person who has even caught the bug. And maybe three or four out of a thousand who catch COVID, overwhelmingly the old and frail, die from it. How can popular perceptions be so unmoored from reality?

Throughout human history, people’s opinions have been based mostly on their own observations and experience. If someone tried to sell a line of BS, a normal person would check the claim against his own experience and, if it didn’t add up, reject the claim. This was known as common sense.

Somehow, that basic reality check seems to have stopped operating. Many millions of Americans apparently believe that their compatriots are dropping like flies from COVID, when their own experience, if consulted, would belie that assertion. But in our world, media hype, the assurances of “experts,” and social media group-think seem to trump lived experience–that is, common sense.

The theory underlying democracy is predicated in large part on the idea that voters’ judgments on policy issues will be based on their own observations and experience, and while a single person’s experience may not be a sound guide to public policy, the experience of the majority usually will be. But if most people form opinions that are actually contrary to their own experiences and observations, based instead on media hysteria that is likely politically driven, the democratic process can go seriously awry.

That is where we are today. Examples of this phenomenon could be multiplied–claims about racial injustice are another obvious example–but for now let’s stick with COVID. If most Americans seriously believe that COVID fatalities are 188 times the actual number, they likely will vote for policies that are–to put it politely–sub-optimal. I can’t explain why so many Americans have seemingly abandoned their own observations as a guide to reality, but that does seem to be the point at which we have arrived.

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