The best chapters of human history are penned by our demand for certainty and control over a hostile world. It’s why we have science and community. But that demand also explains the worst passages, the panics that have led us to embrace bad information and false prophets.
One current example is the “breaking news” alerts that arrive by the hour providing precise counts of the confirmed cases of Covid-19 in our in our state, country, and the world.
Those exact numbers suggest that not a sneeze falls without the notice of the authorities pledged to protect us. In fact, they are misleading. The 2,585 cases North Carolina reported in 89 counties Monday morning is a running total of everyone who has tested positive – no one is dropped from the list even though some have certainly recovered.
Much more important is the fact that the number of residents who have – or have had – the virus is much higher. On March 27, when the U.S. had about 100,000 confirmed cases, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the architects of Obamacare, estimated the real number was closer to a million. Around the same time, two doctors from Stanford University said the total could be as high as six million.
Still these estimates matter because they underscore the push-pull moment we find ourselves in. They push us to continue practicing social distancing because the outbreak is far more extensive than the official numbers declare. But they also pull us toward re-evaluating how we understand the threat we face.
To resolve this tension, we should focus on the one fairly accurate number we have – deaths.
As of Monday morning, 31 North Carolinians reportedly died from the virus. This is a relatively low mortality rate of about 1.2 percent of confirmed cases – it is exponentially lower if we assume that maybe 10 times that number or more have been infected.
In part to bolster the government’s stay-at-home order, the news media keep reminding us that no age group is immune – 41 percent of confirmed cases in North Carolina are among those aged 25-49.
But the more significant statistic is that 84 percent of those who have died are 65 and older – even though they account for just 21 percent of confirmed cases. Covid-19 can make the young very sick; but evidence from around the country indicates that the vast majority who have succumbed to the virus have had underlying health conditions.
It is clear that one segment of the population – people with pre-existing health conditions, who tend to be elderly – is at grave risk. The rest of us may contract the disease without knowing it, suffer relatively mild symptoms, or experience a week of hell before recovering.
To date, we have acted as if everybody is at equal risk. But the numbers suggest we should start to calibrate our response to provide protection for those who are especially vulnerable, while allowing others to resume their lives, carefully.
We may not know the virus’ reach, but we know that more than six million Americans filed for unemployment last week. Perhaps 70 percent of Americans cannot do their jobs from home; many of these people live paycheck to paycheck. Government – which will see a stark decline in tax revenues – cannot begin to address this shortfall.
Covid-19 presents fearfully complex challenges. As we struggle to seize control amidst uncertainty we should acknowledge that our current response – universal lockdown – is not sustainable for long and question whether it is supported by the data.