Newsflash: Coronavirus is a really big deal.
With more than 80,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, you’d think that even President Trump would be painfully clear on this point. Then again, why should he be more rational than the bulk of his friends and fans?
From William Bennett to Laura Ingraham to Rush Limbaugh to Ben Shapiro and straight on down the list, so many right-wing talkers have demonstrated so much utter illogic in the face of global pandemic that it has become its own scary contagion. Like virus lingering on a half-washed hand, their echo chamber rings with the astounding contention that the infection currently ravaging the nation is nothing to get too hyped up about. No! It’s a wildly-overblown doom-and-gloom scenario spun up by public-health geeks and their liberal enablers. Bizarrely, the more scalding the evidence to the contrary that is poured on it, the more this misapprehension seems to replicate and spread.
I’ll leave it to epidemiologists and their demonizers to fight over whether X restriction-loosening will lead to Y public-health disaster, and further leave it up to cable-news luminaries to weigh in on whether that’d be better or worse than risking Z cases of financial ruin.
My only point here is one that I can’t believe still needs to be made. Purely based on what actually has happened, and is happening, in plain view, COVID-19 is a national catastrophe. Thankfully, polls suggest that most Americans understand this. But whether snarking at Anthony Fauci, swinging a noose at Gretchen Whitmer, or purring condescension about lefty hysteria across the airwaves, a significant and influential minority does not grasp it at all. It is far past time for their foolishness to be injected with Clorox, flooded with ultraviolet rays, and blasted straight out of the body politic.
With apologies to those conservatives who have met this moment with the seriousness it demands – I’m lookin’ at you, Mike DeWine -- let’s take a few of the standard minimizations one by one:
It’s just another flu.
Senator Rand Paul is the latest to float this falsehood. “We have less deaths in Kentucky than we have in an average flu season,” he said, by way of needling Fauci at Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
This despite wrenchingly irrefutable evidence that COVID-19 has already made the average American flu season look like a day at the beach, circa 2019.
Even accepting the most dire figures on the most dire flu season in recent memory – that some 80,000 Americans died of flu and its complications in 2017-18 -- COVID-19 has already killed more than that number in less than a third of the time. And if a recent Scientific American post by Jeremy Samuel Faust is to be credited, typically-cited CDC flu figures should be binned like yesterday’s PPE. Faust points out that such estimates are a model, rather than a tally. Counting real-time death by real-time death, the way that coronavirus fatalities are being tabulated, a terrible flu year claims something under 16,000 people. That’s less than two weeks in the life and deaths of COVID-19.
By the way, in that unusually-brutal flu season of 2017-2018, 333 Kentuckians died. Figuring the flu season to last from October through April, that works out to about 11 or 12 deaths per week. Since March 16, when its first death was announced in Senator Paul’s home state, COVID-19 has killed 321, which works out to about forty deaths per week. That seems like a lot more.
Think of all the traffic accidents we have every single year, and we don’t shut down the country for that.
As I type this, coronavirus has killed 44,625 more Americans than are estimated to have died in traffic accidents in the whole of 2019 (38,800). That’s more than a 2:1 COVID-to-car-death ratio. At its current daily death rate (1630), COVID-19 annualizes to 594,950 deaths per year, or a little over 15 times the rate of 2019 traffic deaths.
Of course, optimists will point out that the current daily death rate may do nothing but fall. And who doesn’t hope that they are right? But even if they are – even if, a year from now, every go-ahead-and-get-a-manicure governor is laughing in the face of everyone who voiced a doubt – it will still be true that comparing deaths from COVID-19 to those from traffic accidents has long since been rendered ridiculous.
Sure, it’s bad for old and/or sick people but they were about to die anyway.
The moral odiousness of this argument is the subject for a whole other head-banging.
For those who remember the painful birth of Obamacare, though, the political irony is to choke on. Back in 2009, anyone who dared to hint at the very high proportion of health-care resources that are expended to prolong clearly-soon-to-end lives was basically accused of murder. Now, as many of the same folks would have it, if you’re over 65 and/or diabetic, off you go!
In fairness, not everyone who decries the COVID-19 “overreaction” does so out of a cruel indifference to Grandma. Some insist that they are doing so, all the more to protect her. “The coronavirus danger is narrowly targeted at a very specific portion of the population: the elderly infirm. These individuals need to be intensely protected,” Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald recently argued in a New York Post column that mostly blasted how “overfearful of coravirus we’ve become.”
That sounds great: Go all-out to safeguard the handful who could get really sick or die, and let everybody else get on with earning a living. It’s a win-win.
Indeed, in theory, if adopted nationally, forcefully, and very early on, some version of that approach might have made some sense. In practice, it’s not a tack that any American government could easily take, and the very antithesis of one that the current American government would remotely contemplate.
In order for a masterful, pre-emptive surgical strike to have had a snowball’s chance in hell of saving the economy from coronavirus, there would have had to have been a supremely masterful surgeon in charge, scalpel expertly aimed. To this day, our actual guy won’t even put a mask on.
Think back to late January, or early February. There are no known coronavirus cases, let alone deaths, anywhere in the U.S. In the midst of what Americans are experiencing as a complete non-event, President Trump gets an earful from global-intelligence and health experts, some of them “deep state” lifers like Fauci. Ignoring the objections of corporate titans and the Tea Party, he mandates the isolation of private as well as state-run nursing homes and everyone who passes through them. He exhorts Congress to fast-track emergency legislation requiring businesses to allow immunosuppressed employees to work from home; compensate those obliged to stay away from affected jobs; hyper-regulate the sanitation, social distancing, and virus-monitoring in essential businesses, on the grounds that they can’t shut down no matter what, and therefore safeguards need to be put in place for their workers. He calls all his favorite pastors to the White House and tells them that their church services are to be closed to everyone who either is -- or lives with anyone who is -- sick or over the age of sixty-five.
Maybe, just maybe, if the Trump administration had taken that and a host of other uncharacteristically wise and difficult actions, many lives and much of the economy would have been spared. But can anyone imagine him doing that? Or anyone in his posse urging him to do that?
Then again, even if Team Trump were capable of such action, “super-protect the super-vulnerable, hands off everybody else” is not the finger-snap solution it sounds like.
The whole formulation lowballs not only the proportion of non-ancient people who have seriously suffered or died from COVID-19, but also the degree to which the old and “sick” typically exist among everyone else, and therefore cannot so easily be cordoned off from the nation’s breadwinners. In many cases, such people are the nation’s breadwinners.
No question, the virus hits the oldest by far the hardest. But it’s simply not true that everybody else gets some kind of pass.
According to Michigan’s official numbers, for instance, one-quarter of its cases have been under age forty. Sixty per cent have been under age sixty.
Granted, “under sixty” does not exactly mean “young.” But given that the average age of retirement in this country is 62 – and the youngest our next president can possibly be on inauguration day is 74 -- it hardly equates to “elderly infirm,” either.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of older Americans -- about 95 per cent of those over 65, according to census data -- do not live in nursing homes. That goes for a sizable chunk of super-seniors, as well: In 2012, for example, Forbes noted that more than half of Americans aged ninety-five and above were still living in their own homes. And it’s not as if everybody who gives up the house goes straight to Shady Pines. In 2016, according to a Pew Research Center study, nearly one quarter of women over age 85 were living with their grown children – and thus, in many cases, grandchildren.
Then don’t forget the grandparents who babysit, some to the point of furnishing day care. That’s apart from the more drastic circumstances -- overseas deployments, opiods, incarceration – that call upon grandparents to rear their children’s children, full stop. No doubt, some of those grandparents are fortysomething triathletes. Some most certainly are not.
As for those with “underlying conditions,” they’re not so easy to bubble wrap, either. More than forty per cent of Americans qualify as obese. Some 23.5 million have an autoimmune disorder. At least 16 million live with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In any given year, more than a million are diagnosed with cancer.
This isn’t to suggest that most of America is fated to drop dead at the first hint of coronavirus. But it’s still an awful lot of elevated-risk people, functioning day in and day out at the center of American economic life – or, at the very least, living with people who function there. It’s not as if all concerned could be benched without affecting the game.
Striking, too, is the amount of geographic overlap between the prevalence of underlying conditions in a given state and the reluctance of that state’s leadership to treat coronavirus as a major threat. Go through the top ten states for chronic heart disease, chronic lung disease, adult asthma, diabetes and obesity, and you will not find the stomping grounds of Andrew Cuomo or Gavin Newsom. You will find one rural Republican state after another.
This brings us to another favorite pandemic-shrinking point:
COVID-19 may be a hammer to the heart of some major cities, but it’s barely a prick to the pinky of the heartland.
That’s the gist of Bret Stephens’ New York Times column for April 24: “The Whole Country Shouldn’t Have To Play By New York Rules.”
“Even now,” Stephens wrote, “it is stunning to contemplate the extent to which the country’s Covid-19 crisis is a New York crisis.”
Well, yes and no. Given its 66,000-plus people per square mile and their propensity to be crammed into high rises and subway cars, it is to be hoped that nowhere else gets hit nearly as hard as New York City. But to call this a “New York crisis” is a shrug too far.
To start with the present: On May 12, according to Worldometer, there were 1,630 new deaths recorded in the U.S., of which 172 (10.5%) belonged to New York. Add in New Jersey and Connecticut, and the total rises to 403 (about 24%.) In other words, three quarters of the COVID-19 deaths In America are now deaths outside the New York metropolitan area.
Not too long ago, those figures would have been flipped – which points to the odd fact that the places currently being portrayed as pretty darn safe from the virus are the very places where it is starting to kill more people.
Now, going back to the beginning: if one completely lops all of the New York COVID-19 deaths off the national total, one is left with 56,250. Lop off New Jersey and Connecticut, too, and one is left with 43,668. That means that, even accounting for the worst days in the Big Apple, more than half of American deaths from COVID-19 have taken place outside the New York metropolitan area. And it means that – apart from that metropolitan area – COVID-19 has already killed 4,868 more Americans than died in motor vehicles in 2019, about twenty times more than perished in Hurricane Katrina, and slightly more than died from opioid overdoses in the drug-devastated year of 2017.
In Wisconsin, in Indiana, in Iowa – let alone Illinois and Michigan – COVID-19 has taken much less time to kill many more people than the flu or car accidents, and it’s easily on track to surpass opiod deaths where it hasn’t already.
In short, regardless of what happens from this day forward, there has already been an awful lot of non-New-York dying to be blasé about.
Again, I’m in no position to predict what any of this bodes for the future. But anyone can see how it has played out thus far.
In state after state, government energy or apathy has either improved or worsened the COVID-19 odds relative to population density.
Brian Kemp’s Georgia has both a population density and an urbanized-population rate of roughly a third less than that of Gavin Newsom’s California. So far, Georgia has suffered about twice as many deaths per million as California has.
Mississippi, whose governor, Tate Reeves, resisted a statewide stay-at-home order until April 1, ranks 32nd in population density, 14th in deaths per million.
Conversely, Maryland, under the proactive leadership of Larry Hogan, ranks fifth in population density, but tenth in deaths per million. Ohio, one of the first to lock down under Mike DeWine, ranks tenth in population density, but 17th in deaths per million.
Of course, downstate New York and New Jersey are populated up the wazoo, and despite being governed by a pair of pearl-clutching Democrats, Andrew Cuomo and Phil Murphy, they’ve got far more fatalities than anywhere else. Looking back over the past few months, there’s certainly a case to be made that had Cuomo and Murphy taken swifter, even more sweeping action, the gravediggers of their states would have had a lot less work to do. But could anyone argue that if they had simply cordoned off the nursing homes, urged – but not mandated! -- the cessation of social gatherings, the curtailment of non-essential travel and the wearing of facial coverings by those who enjoy that feeling of snugness on their skin, they wouldn’t have had much more?
As it happens, yes. Many are making just that argument, and the more bodies pile up, the more they double down.
These folks may forever scorn the idea of placing masks over their noses and mouths. But could they please remove the blinds from their eyes?