The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

America Is Not Italy: Wuhan Coronavirus and the ‘Grisly Calculus’ of Pandemic Risk

Posted on | March 16, 2020 | Comments Off on America Is Not Italy: Wuhan Coronavirus and the ‘Grisly Calculus’ of Pandemic Risk

Let’s start with the good news: My American Spectator colleague Jeffrey Lord just ended two weeks of self-quarantine, a precaution after being potentially exposed to Wuhan coronavirus at CPAC. My brother and I both attended CPAC, of course, and while we are not aware of any direct contact with the person from New Jersey who later was diagnosed as a COVID-19 patient, it was nevertheless possible we were exposed. Having passed the 14-day incubation period, then, we have some sense of relief, although I was not worried because I have a robust immune system.

Sunday, Italy reported 368 COVID-19 deaths in a single day. That was two days after Newt Gingrich (whose wife is U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican) published an alarming report on conditions in Italy, where the pandemic has hit most severely. While I still believe Americans are panicking too much over this virus, Gingrich notes that we are fortunate President Trump took one crucial step very early:

President Donald Trump was right to cut off travel from China as soon as it was clear how big the pandemic was going to be. He saved American lives and bought time for America to be more prepared as the pandemic developed.
When you realize that the current 1,016 deaths in Italy with a population of 60 million would be the equivalent of 5,400 deaths in the United States instead of the 41 deaths we have had so far, you can see what milder, slower and less aggressive responses might have cost in lives. Then we would have needed to move to truly draconian measures of isolation and shutdowns.
By the same standard, Trump was exactly right to ban travel from Europe. In fact, he was following the advice of his best medical experts.

Almost no one in the media is reporting the demographic factors involved in Italy’s pandemic disaster, and I can’t vouch for this “alternative” source’s account about the way manufacturers in Northern Italy brought in thousands of Chinese laborers to work in the leather and textile industries. Nonetheless, seems plausible, because it resembles the way Mexican and Central American laborers have been brought into the United States to work in, for example, meat processing plants.

Precaution is not a synonym for panic. To respond rationally to a genuine risk requires facts and arithmetic, because risk is always a matter of statistical probability. China deliberately suppressed the facts in the immediate aftermath of the Wuhan outbreak, and Italy’s government made the mistake of trusting China. By the time they realized how serious the COVID-19 danger was, it was too late to halt the contagion. Last night, I did some quick math and discovered that, a week earlier, there had been more than 500 reported cases of coronavirus in the United States with 21 reported deaths. As of Sunday night, there were about 3,500 reported U.S. cases with 65 reported deaths. This provides us a benchmark estimate of the rate of increase. By next Monday, I would expect around 20,000 reported U.S. cases with about 200 deaths.

If the number of reported U.S. coronavirus deaths next Monday is significantly less than 200, it will mean our health system is functioning effectively to identify and treat infected people. If the number of reported cases is significantly less than 20,000 next Monday, it will mean that the precautions taken so far are effective in preventing the spread of the virus. Having extrapolated what the expected numbers would be in a week, these provide a benchmark by which we can tell whether we are winning or losing the fight against this disease.

My hope is that we will be winning, but what’s important is to establish a metric by which we can measure success. Meanwhile . . .

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? . . .

Read the rest of my latest column at The American Spectator.



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