My 19-year-old son’s university canceled on-campus classes for the rest of the semester, so he booked a $49 flight to Florida, where he’s doing his coursework online and babysitting his nephews. My 17-year-old daughter is out of school for at least the next two weeks, and she informs me that her friends on social media are calling this holiday their “coronavacation.” Whether or not school cancellations will do much to halt the spread of Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) is a matter of speculation, but officials everywhere seem to have decided to err on the side of caution. Thus all Americans are affected by this disease, directly or indirectly, without regard to whether or not we ever actually were at any risk.
Blame the media, but also blame the tort lawyers. Imagine you were a university president, and suddenly cable TV news networks are warning of a deadly pandemic, with some experts offering estimates of millions of infections. The president announces a White House Task Force, and it seems as if we are on the verge of a virus-induced apocalypse. Other universities begin announcing that they will suspend classes, and what are you going to do, Mr. University President? Even if you are skeptical about the worst-case scenarios being discussed 24/7 on CNN, there is the problem of liability. See, if you don’t close your campus and even one of your students comes down with this disease, you might face a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, charging you with negligence for failing to take precautions.
Speaking of precautions, how much toilet paper do you have? The most inexplicable reaction to this disease has been The Great T.P. Stampede of 2020. When it was first reported that fear-stricken mobs were descending on Costco and Walmart to make mass purchases of toilet paper, my wife was mystified. “Does this virus cause diarrhea or something?” No, it’s a flu-like respiratory ailment, but fear is not rational, and so the mad rush to acquire stockpiles of toilet paper has become the subject of comical Facebook memes. One meme shows a nurse telling a patient, “Your COVID-19 test came back positive.” The patient replies, “That can’t be correct. I have more than 300 rolls of toilet paper.”
Another meme inspired by the coronavirus scare shows two hillbillies beside a still: “Moonshine? Hell naw, officer. We makin’ hand sanitizer!” The scarcity of hand sanitizer may have been caused not by mass panic, but by would-be profiteers like Noah and Matt Colvin. The two brothers from Hixon, Tennessee, saw an entrepreneurial opportunity when the first U.S. case of the Chinese virus was announced March 1. They spent three days driving around, buying up all the hand sanitizer available at stores in the area. After some 1,300 miles of binge-buying retail tourism, they had amassed 18,000 bottles, which they began selling via Amazon. But within a day or so, the online vendor shut down the Colvin brothers’ account, accusing them of … well, capitalist greed, I suppose. Jeff Bezos is a billionaire, but he can’t let a couple of small-timers make a tidy profit from a pandemic.
Speaking of profit, ESPN might be the biggest loser from this virus, as nearly every big-time sporting event has been called off. Both the NBA and the NHL announced last week they would indefinitely suspend their seasons, the NCAA has canceled its basketball championship tournament, and Major League Baseball has canceled the rest of spring training, with Opening Day of the regular season pushed back at least two weeks. That was before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced its recommendation for an eight-week ban on all public gatherings of more than 50 people. That would mean no major sports events until May 15. With no games to cover, no scores to report, and no highlight videos to show, what will EPSN announcers do until mid-May? And who, if anyone, will watch a sports network with no sports?
The CDC’s recommendations would also shut down concerts, conventions, and many other events, and international travel has been nearly halted. So what are young people going to do with their “coronavacations” while school is canceled? America now faces the prospect of teenagers moping around the house for two months, playing videogames or binge-watching Netflix. This situation will become annoying, and grown-ups are going to be looking for someone to blame for their misery. Most of the media have already chosen their scapegoat: Blame Trump!
Like the mobs swarming Costco in search of toilet paper, the Trump-hating media’s reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak has been utterly irrational. The people who run CNN and MSNBC organize their coverage around two basic assumptions: Whatever Trump does is bad, and whatever Trump says is wrong. Such was their coverage long before anyone ever heard of this virus, and the same networks that spent months declaring the president guilty of Russian “collusion” are now telling their audience that the president has thoroughly botched the federal government’s response to the Wuhan virus. (By the way, the same people who now claim it’s “racist” to refer to the Chinese origin of COVID-19 were themselves calling it the “Wuhan virus” just a few weeks ago.) Yet it is difficult to deny that Trump’s decision in early February to restrict travel from China has prevented the United States from being as badly impacted by the virus as some European nations. Whatever else he may have said or done wrong, the president got it right on that crucial decision, for which he was widely criticized at the time by many of the same media people who are now saying he hasn’t done enough.
Six weeks after his ban on China travel was criticized as going too far, now it seems Trump is incessantly criticized for not going far enough, no matter how far he goes. If he were to mobilize the National Guard to enforce a quarantine (and distribute free toilet paper), we could expect “expert” pundits on CNN to declare that these drastic measures were “too little, too late.” But even if Trump were willing to do everything the TV news experts might demand — wielding dictatorial power, because he’s “literally Hitler,” you know — we must ask whether or not draconian action would actually prevent any coronavirus deaths.
As of Sunday evening, about 3,500 U.S. cases had been reported, with 65 deaths from the virus. That means that, since I last commented on the outbreak a week ago (“I Prefer My Corona With Lime,” March 9), the number of known cases has increased about six-fold, while the number of deaths has tripled. In other words, the number of infections is growing at roughly twice the rate as the number of deaths. If we extrapolate this trend a week into the future, we might expect that by March 23 the number of U.S. coronavirus cases would be more than 20,000, and the number of deaths from the virus perhaps 200. Such numbers would be bad, but as Heather Mac Donald has asked, “Compared to What?”:
What actually matters is whether or not the growing “pandemic” overwhelms our ability to ensure the well-being of U.S. residents with efficiency and precision. But fear of the disease, and not the disease itself, has already spoiled that for us. Even if my odds of dying from coronavirus should suddenly jump ten-thousand-fold, from the current rate of .000012 percent across the U.S. population all the way up to .12 percent, I’d happily take those odds over the destruction being wrought on the U.S. and global economy from this unbridled panic.
By comparison, there were 38,800 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2019, the National Safety Council estimates. That represents an average of over one hundred traffic deaths every day; if the press catalogued these in as much painstaking detail as they have deaths from coronavirus, highways nationwide would be as empty as New York subways are now. Even assuming that coronavirus deaths in the United States increase by a factor of one thousand over the year, the resulting deaths would only outnumber annual traffic deaths by 2,200. Shutting down highways would have a much more positive effect on the U.S. mortality rate than shutting down the U.S. economy to try to prevent the spread of the virus.
Making such comparisons of fatality rates is, as Mac Donald admits, a “grisly calculus,” but risk is always a matter of statistical probability. You’d be smarter to bet a month’s salary on Powerball tickets than to spend all your money stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer to avoid the long-shot odds of dying from the Wuhan virus. However great the human toll of the disease itself, Mac Donald argues, we will inflict an even greater toll by “shutting down the U.S. economy” in overreaction to the outbreak.
The good news is that, eventually, this virus will prove the truth of Stein’s Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” At some point, the geometric rate of increasing infections will peak, and then life in America will go back to normal. My hunch (and it’s just a hunch, because unlike some pundits, I don’t pretend to be an expert) is that this panic will end soon enough that we’ll have major-league baseball games before April is over. Meanwhile, enjoy your “coronavacation,” and I hope you’ve got enough toilet paper to make it through the crisis. We’ve stockpiled 28 rolls at my house. Not that we’re panicked, you understand. We just decided to err on the side of caution.