Putting COVID-19 Into Perspective

I’ve been following the Coronavirus/COVID-19 story fairly closely for the past couple of months out of both concern and intrigue. Here is the most relevant information I’ve gathered so far and some thoughts about what’s happening:

First, what you probably already know

We have plenty of reason to be concerned about COVID-19, since it’s a new virus (we don’t know a lot about it) and it has the ability to kill people.

Seasonal flu kills between 300,000 to 600,000 people globally every year, which is around 0.1% of the people infected by it. COVID-19 seems to be more deadly (23,000 deaths world-wide so far, with potential to go into the millions).

COVID-19 spreads fast and can quickly overwhelm hospitals that don’t have enough beds or ventilators to treat severe cases and leaves hospitals with less time and fewer resources to help people with other health problems.

Shutting down “non-essential” parts of the economy for a few weeks or months makes sense as long as governments can get money to people who need it. The “shut-down” will not only slow down the spread of the virus, it will allow time for more ventilators and masks to be produced, and for makeshift hospitals to be set up (though much of it may not be needed by then, if the shutdown is effective). It also gives researchers more time to learn more about the virus and potentially develop an anti-viral drug.

What you might not know

Though COVID-19 is a legitimate concern for the reasons mentioned above, and we should follow the advice of health authorities, the good news is that the virus isn’t nearly as deadly as has been reported. The fatality rate is reported to be around 4%, but it excludes the people who haven’t been tested. Health experts believe that there’s likely 10-times as many people who have the virus, but may never know it. If that’s accurate, it means that the real fatality rate may be around 0.4%, making it still worse than the seasonal flu, but not nearly as bad as we’ve heard (though it could go higher because of ventilator shortages, as seen in Italy).

Health experts say that the virus will reach between 30% and 70% of the global population and could kill 50-million to 200-million people. Perhaps over-estimating the number of deaths is justified to make sure people take the virus seriously, but those numbers are very likely worse than even the worst-case scenario. Mainly because of the fatality rate discrepancy mentioned above. There does remain the possibility that the virus could mutate and become more deadly though.

As of this writing there are 500,000 known cases of COVID-19 globally. Which means the real number may be somewhere around 5-million. It has doubled over the past week alone, spreading at a rate of approximately 10.5% per day (though increased testing may be distorting that rate a bit). At that rate it would reach 70% of the population by December (though a rate that high likely isn’t sustainable for that long). However, China demonstrated through it’s aggressive efforts (not condoning everything they did) that the virus can be slowed down to a crawl. The spread is now down to 0.08% per day in China, and they got it down fairly quickly. If the rest of the world can get down to that number by let’s say, the end of April, global cases could be as low as 1% instead of 70% by December (barring any new waves of the virus).

If the virus infects 70% of the global population this year, and presuming that the real death rate may be around 0.4%, there could be 20-million deaths from COVID-19 by the end of the year. If it infects only 1% of the population, the number of deaths could be limited to 300,000. That would keep it down to seasonal flu levels, and seasonal flu levels themselves might end up being lower this year because of everything being done to limit COVID-19.

Shutting down a large part of the economy will be costly and will likely have some side effects that we haven’t put much thought into. Including potentially more suicides, alcoholism, divorces, and other problems that are typically the by-product of unemployment and personal finance problems. Not to mention starvation in some cases. There could be other unseen side effects, such as money that would have gone into say, cancer research, will end up being used to create ventilators, masks, etc. The biggest financial risk of all might be the increase in debt that the shutdown will cause. You just never know how debt bubbles can came back to devastate an economy later on.

The partial shutdown is an unfortunate trade-off, but a necessary one, at least for awhile. We’ll have to open things up sooner than later, with a commitment to continuing certain protocols ie; making sure elderly people and people with underlying illnesses stay home and are taken care of, while the rest of us try to stay 6-feet apart, wash our hands frequently, get tested and quarantine ourselves quickly, etc. We won’t have to do it forever.