The Other McCain

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Fear Not: Why Older Americans Are Less Panicked About Wuhan Coronavirus

Posted on | March 18, 2020 | 1 Comment


Fear can be rational or irrational. If you live in West Baltimore, for example, being afraid of violent crime is entirely rational. Yet even if you live in a low-crime rural area, you may take precautions — a home alarm system, firearms ownership, etc. — without being accused of paranoia, because “better safe than sorry,” right? Some of us spent years of our childhood reciting the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” so that taking precautions is a way of life. At the same time, however, we recited the Scout Law that commands us, among other things, to be brave and cheerful. Courage and cheerfulness are related values; people will not be brave unless they are counseled to be of good cheer and given examples by leaders who exhibit a hopeful and confident attitude.

Part of our training as Boy Scouts was learning the history of our organization. Scouting began as a consequence of Lord Baden-Powell’s experience in the Boer War. Many young British recruits were accustomed to city life, and lacked experience of a vigorous outdoor life. The Scouts were formed to give British boys this experience, to train them for the kind of exertions that might be necessary if, when they reached manhood, their services were needed to defend the Empire.

My parents’ generation survived the Great Depression and World War II — my father was wounded by shrapnel while serving in the Army in France — and they strove to instill in us the old-fashioned values and attitudes which had enabled them to make it through hard times. My Scoutmaster, Jim Cranford, was a Marine veteran of the Pacific Theater who smoked unfiltered Pall Malls and didn’t tolerate whining and bellyaching. My youth football coaches were of a similar mindset. Toughness was a value they highly esteemed.

As a parent, I consider it my duty to transmit to my offspring the values of their ancestors, and so I assume that my children have the psychological toughness not to be irrationally terrified of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. Other parents, evidently, have failed in this regard, and their kids have succumbed to needless panic.

The linked article by New Yorker writer Michael Schulman begins thus:

Last Wednesday night, not long after President Trump’s Oval Office address, I called my mother to check in about the, you know, unprecedented global health crisis that’s happening. She told me that she and my father were in a cab on the way home from a fun dinner at the Polo Bar, in midtown Manhattan, with another couple who were old friends.
“You went to a restaurant?!” I shrieked. This was several days after she had told me, through sniffles, that she was recovering from a cold but didn’t see any reason that she shouldn’t go to the school where she works. Also, she was still hoping to make a trip to Florida at the end of the month. . . .
I still think of my parents as the grownups, the ones who lecture me about saving for retirement and intervene in squabbles with my little sister. It took a pandemic to thrust me into the role of the responsible adult and them into the role of the heedless children. I’m thirty-eight, and my mother and father are sixty-eight and seventy-four, respectively. Neither is retired, and both are in good shape. But people sixty-five and older — more than half of the baby-boomer population — are more susceptible to COVID-19 and have a higher mortality rate, and my parents’ blithe behavior was as unsettling as the frantic warnings coming from hospitals in Italy.
As I spoke to my peers, I realized that I wasn’t alone. A lot of us have spent the past week pleading with our baby-boomer parents to cook at home, rip up the cruise tickets, and step away from the grandchildren.

Screw you, you cowardly little punk. How dare you pretend that fear-mongering over what is, in fact, a contagion not fundamentally different from that of the common cold is the “responsible” thing to do.

Here’s something from a study I noticed last week: As many as 80% of those infected with the Wuhan coronavirus experience only mild symptoms, and some cases are entirely asymptomatic. They don’t even have a cough or sniffles. They are infected, but not sick. In fact, such asymptomatic cases may explain why this virus has spread so rapidly. What has alarmed public health officials in the U.S. and Europe is not merely the extent of the pandemic, but the rapid increase of cases and the very high death rates in Italy, where nearly 3,000 people have died, including 475 on Tuesday alone. The United States has implemented emergency measures — beginning last month with the China travel ban — in an effort to prevent such an escalation here.

It is said that the course of the pandemic in the U.S., in terms of case numbers and deaths from coronavirus, is lagging roughly two weeks behind Italy’s numbers. If so, this means we could be having nearly 500 deaths per day in this country by early April. That sounds pretty scary, until you realize that, during the 2018-2019 flu season, 35.5 million Americans became sick from influenza, of whom 490,000 people were hospitalized, and 34,200 died. If ordinary flu is killing Americans at the rate of 30,000+ annually, without requiring emergency shutdowns of every bar, restaurant and casino in the country, why are we reacting as if this Chinese virus is the Black Plague? I’m at a loss to explain this, except that Trump is president, and the media are therefore trying to hype this pandemic the way they hyped Russian “collusion.”

That doesn’t mean the danger isn’t real — people actually are dying, and at age 60, I’m at elevated risk — but rather that the risk is being blown out of proportion, as a matter of statistical probability. Like I’ve said before, you might as well spend a month’s salary on Powerball tickets, given the actual odds against you dying of this disease. Here’s the total coronavirus death toll, by country:

China ….. 3,237
Italy …….. 2,978
Iran ……… 1,135
Spain …….. 638
France …… 264

Guess what? In 2018, 36,560 Americans died in auto accidents. That’s about 3,000 deaths per month. Every day, about 100 Americans are killed in auto wrecks. Shouldn’t we shut down the highways?

Risk can only be understood in terms of statistical probability. The U.S. death toll from coronavirus so far is 135 and that’s bad. Death is always bad, but when we put these numbers into perspective — as Heather Mac Donald says, “Compared to What?” — the risk should not induce panic.

Let’s hear from a tough old guy who doesn’t scare easily:

My first encounter with a global pandemic came in October 1957, when I spent a week in my college infirmary with a case of the H2N2 virus, known at the time by the politically incorrect name of “Asian flu.” My fever spiked to 105, and I was sicker than I’d ever been. The infirmary quickly filled with other cases, though some ailing students toughed it out in their dorm rooms with aspirin and orange juice. The college itself did not close, and the surrounding town did not impose restrictions on public gatherings. The day that I was discharged from the infirmary, I played in an intercollegiate soccer game, which drew a big crowd.
It’s not that Asian flu — the second influenza pandemic of the twentieth century — wasn’t a serious disease. Worldwide, this flu strain killed somewhere between 1 and 2 million people. More than 100,000 died in the U.S. alone. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, governors did not call out the National Guard, and political panic-mongers did not blame it all on President Eisenhower. College sports events were not cancelled, planes and trains continued to run, and Americans did not regard one another with fear and suspicion, touching elbows instead of hands. We took the Asian flu in stride. We said our prayers and took our chances.

You should read the whole thing, and everybody should calm down.



One Response to “Fear Not: Why Older Americans Are Less Panicked About Wuhan Coronavirus”

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