Are we overreacting?

People ask me my opinion about Covid-19. I’ve thought about it a lot, looked at statistics, read experts, laymen, accounts from the afflicted and the healthcare workers, philosophers, & mathematicians. And I’ve come to a conclusion. Covid-19 is a bad thing. I’m against it. 0 out of 10 stars. Would not recommend.

The truth is, it doesn’t take much courage to note Covid-19 is an unmitigated bad, like cancer or terrorism. Because it is. The world would be better off without it. It causes deaths for innocent people. So we try to stop these things, at high cost.

Are we overreacting? It’s easy, especially in the early stages of a crisis like this, to think so. Why? Simple numbers to fool us. “Why, more people are killed by the flu!” But things aren’t so simple.

An analog might be a fire. If you have a lit candle that is knocked over and sets fire to your window curtain, you drop what you are doing and put out the fire.

If it’s as simple as patting out the fire, great. If you have to dump a giant bucket of water on it, you don’t worry about staining the carpet when the alternative is your house burning down. Exponential growth is a beast you don’t want to mess with.

What you don’t do is say to yourself “I burned my toast this morning more than that candle has burned the curtain so far, no reason to worry” and continue to sip your coffee.

If the flu kills 50,000 Americans a year, Covid-19 has the potential to kill 10-30x that. People’s lives are on the line, and there is no cost too great to save them.

(Side note, I use numbers for Americans not because Americans are somehow intrinsically more important, but because they’re easier to guage numbers for than for the entire world.)

For many, that settles it. If it seems like we’re overreacting, that’s fine. It’s better than letting the problem get out of control. The answer to the question “Are we overreacting?” is a resounding “No.”

Let’s ask ourselves one more question; what would it take to come to the conclusion that we have overreacted? If your response to this question is “But we haven’t overreacted, end of discussion.” that’s fine. You are safely within the consensus, and no one can fault you. But the question isn’t “Have we overreacted?” the question is what it would take to come to the conclusion that we have.

As outlined at the beginning of this post, simple metrics won’t do. Had it taken a billion dollars to stop the spread from the first carrier of Covid-19 to the second, it would have been worth it. A single additional infection doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things now, but at that early stage, it obviously would have.

We don’t sacrifice trillions of dollars to save the tens of thousands who die of the flu each year. Yet nearly all the same moralizing arguments I see applied to Covid-19 apply equally to the flu. (I’m not saying Covid-19 is the same as the flu. Don’t @ me with that.) “How can you compare dollars to lives?”, “Economists can only crunch numbers, but each life is precious”, “We can’t let greed get in the way of saving lives.” Etc.

At first blush, the answer is “But Covid-19 is more dangerous”. True, but a non-sequiter objection to the moral arguments raised above. Each life is precious, whether they are taken by the flu or Covid-19. You can’t compare dollars to lives, so why not shut down the economy to stop next year’s flu season? Sure, it would cost trillions, but you can’t compare dollars to lives. After all, you can’t let greed get in the way of saving lives.

“But Covid-19 is more dangerous” you might object, more loudly this time. Still non-sequiter to the moral objections above. For “Covid-19 is more dangerous” to hold water as an argument, you must do comparisons. With numbers. Weigh costs (in economic terms) to lives of both the Flu and Covid-19. You may know the conclusion you have come to, “Shut it all down for Covid-19, but not for the flu.” But you can’t claim to have come to that conclusion logically without admitting you are making these comparisons the moral arguments would forbid. Tisk tisk.