Some perspective on the COVID-19 coronavirus and global response

Over the weekend there have been some major, and on the surface rather frightening developments surrounding the corornavirus outbreak that started in China last year.  So how bad is it, and should you be freaking out?  When the media starts using words like “pandemic” people start to panic.  But the bottom line on this situation is there is more reason to worry about the panic than the pandemic.  Here’s some perspective:

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.  In English, that’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related (SARS) CoronaVirus.  Here’s what the beast looks like …

CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #23312.

Part of the problem is that the info coming out of China is pretty obviously crap.  We just don’t have a good picture of things like how contagious it is, and in particular nobody really believes the statistics on the number of cases and associated mortality rate.  That has given rise to lots of crazy rumors and fear mongering. But it seems like the following is true of COVID-19, based on reliable sources:

  1. It’s pretty contagious, and apparently can live outside a host for longer than stuff like the flu.  That means it’s easier to spread indirectly (someone touches a surface and leaves some virus, somebody comes along a day or so later and picks it up);
  2. A lot of people seem to just get mild cold/flu like symptoms – often so mild they are don’t realize they are sick with it, but are shedding virus everywhere;
  3. “Incubation” times are therefore suspect, and the 14 day time frame is problematic – some suggest up to 28 days;
  4. Some people do get pretty sick from it. It’s not completely clear yet just why, but aside from people who are normally vulnerable to respiratory infections (young children, the elderly and immune compromised), it seems smokers are more susceptible to getting really sick from COVID-19.  If it triggers pneumonia it gets bad (duh);
  5. With treatment/support care, it’s very manageable – just not in a crowded and populated megacity like Wuhan, etc. where it can spread quickly and stress health care systems.
  6. The test kits are limited in number, and may have a high false negative rate (in other words, say you don’t have it when in fact you have been infected).

Beware the term “pandemic.”  It conjures up visions of the Spanish Flu, the Black Death, and Monty Python Skits.  But all that word means is, per the World Health Organization, A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease.  It really doesn’t say how bad it will be – just the flu, or something a lot worse.  COVID-19 is at the low end of that spectrum.  It seems like the mortality rate (the fraction of people who will die if they get it) is low, most likely less than the normal seasonal flu.  So, more contagious than the flu (bad), but perhaps less deadly (good).  Which means if you are reasonably healthy and take normal precautions (hand washing, don’t touch your face if you can avoid it, etc.) you probably won’t get it and if you do, it probably won’t be bad.  If you are in a vulnerable population (elderly, are immuno-compromised, or have lung problems) or are a moron smoker, be more careful and seek medical attention if you start to feel cold or flu like symptoms.

That said, the reaction to the virus will very likely cause far more damage than the virus itself.  Economic indicators are already trending sharply down on news from Italy that there are several outbreaks there, with authorities (IMNSHO overreacting) by putting in place quarantines.  This, combined with the virtual shut-down of production of many vital global exports from China (including a lot of medical supplies we have stupidly outsourced there just to save a couple bucks), means a global recession is inevitable at this point.  When it is announced that there are hundreds if not thousands of cases in the US, people will freak out even though as noted above there seems to be no more reason to freak out over COVID-19 than over the normal influenza virus.  Be prepared for a very rocky couple of months as authorities try to find a balance between trying to look like they are doing something, and causing more damage than the disease.  Once spring sets in (likely early this year according to both science and rodent based forecasts), it’s likely that like the seasonal flu, the infection rates will drop.  But by then the economic damage will have been done.

Bottom line: the disease itself doesn’t seem that bad in perspective (not to dismiss the potential for a lot of people to get sick, and an unfortunate number die), but the economic impacts may be tough on your 401-K, a lot of people will be hurt by an economic downturn, and there will likely be some shortages of things from China (and maybe elsewhere) due to actions (and over-reactions) by authorities and breathless reporting that is likely to kick in to high gear today.  I know it’s a lot to ask, just be sensible 🙂

Addendum: some links for information, and an analysis of the Diamond Princess data.
Updated data and discussion of 25 Feb CDC Briefing.

10 thoughts on “Some perspective on the COVID-19 coronavirus and global response

  1. The “availability bias” run amok. Many headlines and tons of coverage make it seem like the world is coming to an end. Just because there are 5 stories about it in every newsfeed capturing your attention doesn’t make it “worse” or “true”. As Daniel Kahneman says “Nothing is as important as when you are thinking about it.” So perhaps we should stop thinking about it.

    • Absolutely, But I think being aware, and taking sensible precautions (especially if in a vulnerable population) makes some sense. The kinds of things you should do for a hurricane, earthquake, etc. are actually the same kinds of things you should do for a dangerous pandemic or many other natural and anthropogenic disasters. But, yeah, worrying about it and wearing out the refresh key on your keyboard doesn’t do any good – and in fact does a lot of harm.

  2. I have friends in Japan. Life is becoming much more difficult. They have many active cases, and the new infection rate is very under reported.
    They are beginning to experience shortages. Toilet paper, pharmaceuticals, masks, gloves. Chinese export interruption will become a bigger deal and affect many more products than we can imagine.
    Flip over packages of your daily products…made in China?
    I appreciate your addressing this. People need to wake up, it may not be the end of the world, but the recession and unavailability of Chinese exports will put a major strain on families who are struggling to make ends meet already.

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