The coronavirus outbreak has killed more than 30,000 people globally and the disease is now infecting people at a faster pace. It took three months for the first 100,000 cases, but only 12 days for the next 100,000. Numbers have increased to over 600,000 infections, in part, because of increased testing. Covid-19 has spread to 160 countries, resulting in nationwide lockdowns to “flatten the curve” enough to dampen what would otherwise be a tidal wave of cases.

How the world is reacting to the pandemic, which has killed far less people than the common flu, illustrates the subconscious anchoring biases in how we think about risk, as well as the impulses that often guide our responses. We overreact to epidemics, terrorist attacks and other extreme events, even when our personal risk is infinitesimal. Yet, we are less attentive to other threats that are far more likely to harm us, such as driving or the flu.

Driving kills over 40,000 Americans every year but we fear terrorism which kills fewer than 100. Influenza kills at least 30,000 Americans every flu season and sickens as much as 20 percent of the population, but because most of us have had the flu and survived, we avoid getting a flu shot. The vaccination rate for the 2019–20 flu season was less than 50 percent.

As we have seen since the start of the outbreak, many individuals who get the novel coronavirus never become sick. Most infected people experience nothing worse than seasonal flu symptoms, but the mind has its own ways of measuring danger. Covid-19 hits nearly every cognitive trigger that we have—it can be fatal, it’s invisible and hard to protect against, exposure is involuntary and it’s not clear the authorities are in control of the situation. That causes a global wave of anxiety.

Hyperbolic social media coverage exacerbates the risk perception, as it allows us to have a more intimate experience with the threat. Visual graphics from John Hopkins University give the false impression that the whole world is infected. Europe’s total of more than 300,000 cases is 0.06 percent of their population, but the red dots make it appear the entire continent is in danger. The total number of cases in China were only 0.01 percent of the population.

Source: Johns Hopkins University (Coronavirus Resource Center)

The coronavirus triggers thinking about the 1918 Spanish flu, which infected a third of the world’s population and killed 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans.

We have heard years of warnings about lethal pandemics and Bill Gates has stated that Covid-19 is behaving a lot like the “once-in-a-century pathogen” he has been worried about. British epidemiologist Dr. Neil Ferguson, who is regarded as one of the best disease modelers in the world, suggests the best case for America is about 1.1 million deaths.

When you tell people, they can protect themselves simply by washing their hands, it seems an inadequate action. Primal instincts compel us to buy masks and sanitizers and stockpile guns and food. Grocery stores look apocalyptic with aisles of empty shelves.

“The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality,” Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has observed through his work. Our expectations and responses are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.

“We’re hearing about the fatalities,” said Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychologist. “We’re not hearing about the 98 or so percent of people who are recovering from it and may have had mild cases.” The US has reported 1,500 deaths from the coronavirus, but it’s as if people are experiencing one report after another of planes crashing, Slovic said. “Our feelings don’t do arithmetic very well.”

Rather than containing fear during an epidemic, governments overreact to retain the public’s trust without a rigorous, data-driven context. Worst-case reasoning leads to extreme measures of social distancing and lockdowns. We shut schools, offices, factories—sometimes with serious consequences. More than 25 million American kids rely on school for food. Nearly half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. The economy could lose at least 5 million jobs this spring.

The draconian countermeasures are affecting people at the most basic level and going to cause immense pain and suffering. What if the largest quarantine in human history fails to stop the spread of the disease? No one knows whether the virus will disappear ultimately, or it will persist like the flu and become prevalent in our lives.

According to epidemiologist John P.A. Ioannidis, co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center, the public response is not grounded in hard data and evenly applied criteria, but rather in the instincts and habits of practitioners. Experts are disassociated with the numbers. “The data collected so far on how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving are utterly unreliable.” The absolute number of cases, the role of children in transmission, the role of presymptomatic transmission, and the risk of dying from infection remain uncertain.

There are contradictory reports of how transmissible the new virus is. Some studies suggest the disease does not seem to spread as easily as the flu. Other disease modeling suggests the virus is more transmissible. Oxford epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta led a team of researchers in a modeling study which suggests the virus has been invisibly spreading for at least a month earlier than suspected, concluding that as many as half of the people in the UK have already been infected by Covid-19. If her model is accurate, fewer than one in a thousand who’ve been infected become sick enough to need hospitalization, leaving the vast majority with mild cases or free of symptoms.

Early on in an infection, it’s possible that a person could test negative even if they have the virus. In the close contacts of Covid-19 patients, nearly half or more of the asymptomatic infected individuals in the active nucleic acid test screening might be false positives. And a positive test does not mean the virus is primarily responsible for the patient’s demise either. More than one virus is often found upon autopsy for people who die from viral respiratory pathogens.

More than 99 percent of Italy’s coronavirus fatalities have been people who suffered from previous medical conditions. Only 12 percent of deaths have shown a direct causality from coronavirus on re-evaluation by the National Institute of Health, while 88 percent of patients who died had at least one pre-morbidity and many had two or three. The average age of those who’ve died from the coronavirus in Italy is 79.5. Even among those older than 90, 78 percent survived. All victims under 40 were males with serious existing medical conditions.

Given the limited testing to date, the vast majority of Covid-19 infections are being missed. This “evidence fiasco” creates tremendous uncertainty and paranoia about the reported fatality rates. In the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the initial case fatality estimate was 1 percent. As time passed with a more accurate case count, the US rate fell to 0.02 percent.

Researchers in China have now concluded the death rate in Wuhan, the raging epicenter of the epidemic, is actually 1.4 percent, much lower than the previous estimate of 5.8 percent. In China outside Hubei province, 0.8 percent of those known to be infected died. South Korea has conducted over 200,000 tests and found a fatality rate of 0.7 percent. Considering the mild to asymptomatic cases that are spreading undetected, the overall fatality rate from the novel coronavirus may be lower than 0.5 percent.

During the Spanish flu, the young, old, sick and otherwise-healthy people all became infected, and at least 10 percent of patients died.

Stanford biophysicist and Nobel laureate Michael Levitt said this week, the real situation is not nearly as terrible as people make it out to be. “You need to think of coronavirus like a severe flu. It is four to eight times as strong as a common flu, and yet, most people will remain healthy and humanity will survive.”

At Vanderbilt University’s testing center, where 1,000 people are being tested for coronavirus each day, flu cases outnumber coronavirus cases by a wide margin (up to five times). The hospital’s coronavirus test results likely reflect a higher infection rate than in the community as a whole, as tests are being ordered only for patients with fever and respiratory symptoms.

About 38 million people in the US have had the flu this season, which has a month or more to run. Of them, about 23,000 have died. If we assume that 10 million Americans get infected by Covid-19 and the case fatality rate is 0.5 percent, this would translate to 50,000 deaths. If we assume 100 million people globally get infected (the spread in Asia has already slowed), this would translate to 500,000 deaths.

The unfortunate reality is between 27,000 and 70,000 Americans die from the flu each year. Worldwide, the death toll is estimated between 300,000 to 650,000. “If we had not known about a new virus out there, the number of total deaths due to an ‘influenza-like illness’ would not seem unusual this year,” said Ioannidis. There are years when the flu is raging, like in the US in 2017 when there were three times the regular number of mortalities.

In 2008, we relied on economists’ shoddy models, then ridiculed them after they failed for considering economics a “science.” The lesson is not lost on us. Today, we rely on the false precision of epidemiologists’ models, which, of course, we can’t question because its science—and who is against saving lives?

Just as America’s woefully misguided War on Terror created the “illusion of security” following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the extreme lockdowns create an “illusion of safety” to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Both responses are totally irrational and have put the world in a more precarious position.

Activity in the manufacturing and services sectors fell to record lows in both the US and Europe this month. Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, expects a huge service-sector recession with more than 10 million jobs at risk that are low-wage, low-benefit, or tip-based. Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s, has said that 18 percent of the labor force is at “high-risk”—more than 25 million jobs. About one in five people in America have already lost working hours or jobs. State unemployment websites have been crashing as the numbers of applications surged to about three times greater than their previous record.

Because of our fear-driven response to the coronavirus outbreak, this sudden-onset recession, which has no precedent in American history, may swing the economy from the lowest unemployment rate since the 1950s to the highest rate since the 1930s.

Annie Lowry, writing for The Atlantic, captures the devastation.

Things are not normal. To quantify the present reality, we have to rely on anecdotes from businesses, surveys of workers, shreds of private data, and a few state numbers. They show an economy not in a downturn or a contraction or a soft patch, not experiencing losses or selling off or correcting. They show evaporation, disappearance on what feels like a religious scale.

Denmark’s government has proposed to guarantee up to 75 percent of employee wages to avoid mass layoffs. The total costs of the plan could run to $50 billion, or about 15 percent of GDP. The UK government is planning something similar and the cost is estimated at $450 billion, or 15 percent of GDP. Germany announced a $600 billion package to keep workers on the payroll through the Covid-19 crisis while France will spend $50 billion to help small businesses and employees struggling during this time. This is not stimulus but “social insurance,” which may not have the same near-term multiplier effect. And if society fails to start up again in three months, the cost of these programs will increase substantially as more support will be required.

China’s urban unemployment rate jumped in February to 6.2 percent, its highest on record, indicating that at least 4.67 million people lost their jobs. This does not include China’s 291 million migrant workers who are most vulnerable as many are yet to return to work. Then there are 8.7 million Chinese who will graduate from university this summer. The challenge is the number of new urban jobs created fell to 1.1 million in the first two months of the year from 1.7 million during the same period of 2019.

China’s fiscal response in light of this has remained surprisingly restrained. The government has announced $344 billion of spending, which is about 3 percent of GDP, to fight against the outbreak. During the global financial crisis in 2008, China implemented a $586 billion stimulus package, which was 13 percent of GDP at the time. China is not going to rescue the global economy.

G20 finance ministers and central bankers have pledged to inject over $5 trillion into the global economy and “do whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic.” However, this is about the same amount that was injected to prop up the global economy in 2009. Global GDP has increased 50 percent since then.

Bridgewater Associates estimates the hit to global corporate revenues from the coronavirus outbreak will be $12 trillion. In America, corporate revenue across public and private businesses will decline by roughly $4 trillion. On a cash flow basis, the shortfall could be about $2 trillion. The federal response is simply not enough.

The Senate reached a deal on Friday for a $2 trillion stimulus package that includes sending $1,200 checks to each adult and $500 for each child under 17, creating a $367 billion loan program for small businesses, and setting up a $500 billion fund for industries, cities and states. Congress would need to pass another rescue package if the shutdown persists.

“Our country wasn’t built to be shut down,” President Trump said, noting the economic disruption. “I’m not looking at months, I can tell you right now... If it were up to the doctors, they’d say let’s shut down the entire world. This could create a much bigger problem than the problem that you started out with.”

Trump said he wants to get business around the country back open by Easter Sunday, April 12. As the poet Robert Frost summed up what he learned about life in three words: it goes on.

But as the US has taken the lead in the global number of coronavirus cases, and Trump has faced criticism for his botched response to the outbreak, the idea is being treated as foolish by leading epidemiologists and economists.

“Anyone advising the end of social distancing needs to fully understand what the country will look like if we do that,” cautioned Dr. Tom Inglesby, a health security expert at Johns Hopkins University. “Covid-19 would spread widely, rapidly, terribly, and could kill potentially millions in the year ahead, with huge social and economic impact.” Harvard professor Larry Summers has proclaimed it would be “the greatest policy blunder of the twenty-first century by far.”

Trump has said so many lies that people no longer believe him the one time he’s being reasonable and telling the truth. The irony is rich!

Governors and mayors, who took matters into their own hands and issued shutdown orders to fight the outbreak, will likely ignore Trump’s directive to restart economic life. In a poll by Morning Consult taken March 20 to 22, a plurality of Americans said they strongly support a “national quarantine,” and nearly three-quarters of Americans expressed at least some support for the idea.

Even if restrictions are eased, people will continue social distancing out of fear of an illness that seems to lurk in the mundane. Paranoia has infected the country. More than 160 million people in 17 states are being told to shelter in place, accounting for nearly half the US population.

This is our conundrum: we believe the world is grossly exaggerating the threat to our lives from the coronavirus, and severely underestimating the potential human and economic toll due to our fear-driven response to it, which has led to the most abrupt and widespread cessation of economic activity in history.

The Fed can provide lots of liquidity to keep critical financial markets functioning, and even reverse the mark-to-market losses, but can it stave off a wave of business closures and make up the shortfall from workers who are furloughed? The global recession could be longer and harsher.

As the world suffers on, author Frank Herbert inspires the best within us with these words from his cult-classic novel, Dune.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Photo: Pexels