Dear Fellow Temporarily Constrained Traveler,
As I begin today’s Sendero I’m listening, appropriately, to Airborne Toxic Event's song Sometime Around Midnight. It has just the sort of dramatic build up I favor in my music.
Hope you enjoy it, though I suspect many won’t.
Per my comments in Scared New World - Part 1, tired of reading so many conflicting views on the coronavirus, I started poking around in the hard data.
Ignoring all the “this could be”, “may be”, “might be” opinion pieces, I focused only on credible data sets in an attempt to come to a reasonably informed opinion about the thing.
With the caveat that I’m not a data analyst, or even particularly good at math, following are my findings. Feel free to kick the tires on any or all of it, and show me where I’ve gone wrong.
As no one needs to tell you, governments the world over have all but shut down their respective economies, with little regard to the impact these shutdowns are having on businesses, or the citizens unexpectedly thrown out of work.
This is a history-making event, literally unprecedented. And given the overrunning of basic human rights inherent in incarcerating the people of the world for “the greater good”, it sets a very powerful and disturbing precedent.
Therefore, a working thesis has to start with this being one bad ass Black Swan, one that makes 911 look like a cute little duckling.
To more formally state the thesis:
“The coronavirus is especially virulent and deadly, with the potential of morphing into a global pandemic on par with the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed up to 5% of the global population. Therefore, the extreme measures taken by governments around the globe are warranted.”
So, how does that thesis hold up?
And the Data Says…
To prove the thesis that the coronavirus could morph into something that at least rhymes with the Spanish Flu, we need to set a baseline.
So, let’s start with the Spanish Flu itself, the granddaddy of pandemics.
Back in 1918 the global population was 1.8 billion.
The general consensus of the estimated death toll is that “up to 5%” of the global population died from the Spanish Flu, so call it 90,000,000.
Which means that for the coronavirus to match the reigning champ of pandemics, up to 5% of the current global population of 7.8 billion people would have to die, or a total of 390,000,000.
For the record, the global coronavirus death tally at the moment is only 245,000.
That equals just .063% (.00063) of the 390,000,000 coronavirus deaths the world would have to experience in order to equal the Spanish flu.
That simple calculation alone suggests the thesis is weak.
Now let’s look at the natural morbidity rate, as that provides us with a well-supported baseline for just how bad the coronavirus has been so far compared to the normal rate of death.
Natural Annual Morbidity Rate
In the United States 8.78 people per 1,000 population, or .878%, die in the typical year (citations at the end of the article).
With the US population currently at 320,000,000, we would thus expect 2,809,600 people to shed their mortal coils in a normal year.
According to the CDC, that works out to a death rate in the United States of about 7,700 deaths each and every day, with seasonal fluctuations you can see in the chart here.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the reported coronavirus deaths to see how many deaths in excess of the norm have been reported.
According to the CDC, there have been a total of 65,000 deaths credited to the coronavirus in the United States, all of which have occurred since the first recorded case, February 29.
So, about 32,500 deaths per month up to the moment I am writing you. Should that run rate continue unabated between May 1 2020 and May 1 2021, we would be looking at 390,000 deaths attributed to the coronavirus for the 12 month period.
No question, if those numbers are accurate, that’s a lot of bodies. Enough, certainly, to warrant decisive action on the part of the citizenry and, as needed, the government.
But let’s look at the actual data on the excess number of deaths for the 55 day period between February 29 and April 25, 2020 – the last period for which we have complete data.
Normally during this time of year, due to the aforementioned seasonal differences, we would have expected to see an average of about 7,950 deaths per day.
Thus, for the 55 day period we would expect to normally see 437,250 total deaths.
The actual death rate during the period was 447,147, or 9,897 more deaths than we would typically expect.
And that is during a period that most experts believe will be the worst of the pandemic. As you can see in the chart here, the number of deaths per day credited to the coronavirus in the US is definitely trending down.
Regardless, based on the actual data, the US excess death rate clocked in at 2.2% over the norm, or about 179 people per day. Multiply that by 365 days, and should the death rate continue unabated we would see 65,335 coronavirus deaths over the coming year.
Well short of the 390,000 extra deaths suggested by extrapolating the CDC's numbers out to 12 months.
And it's worth noting the vast majority of people who have died from the coronavirus had underlying health conditions, such as heart disease, so the odds are good that in many cases all the coronavirus did was to hurry their exit from this dimension, not cause it. For the record, about 650,000 people die every year in the US from heart disease.
To tie the knot on this datapoint, as a percentage of the population, an excess death rate of 65,335 people represents an additional annual death rate of .00024.
Some, though obviously not anyone who has lost a loved one to the virus, or those in the medical community now working at the sharpest point in the healthcare system, might call that a rounding error.
The absence of any truly shocking news about the coronavirus in the United States can also be seen in this chart from the UN agency that tracks deaths by country.
Total Deaths 2020 vs. 2019
Is the Quarantine Working?
Of course, many will credit the extraordinary quarantine with the relatively low level of daily coronavirus deaths in the United States.
To gain some perspective on that front, we need to look at a country where the government adopted a far more laissez-faire approach to the virus: Sweden.
Rather than enforcing a quarantine, the government took the approach of educating the public, recommending people practice social distancing, work at home if possible, yet still allowing shops, schools, restaurants, theaters, etc., to remain open.
So, how’s that worked out?
Looking at the data through April 22, 2020, we find the following:
Total population: 10.2 million
Total number of cases: 22,300
Total deaths: 2,700
Total cases as a % of the population: .22%
Total deaths as a % of the population: .026%
In the United States, over the same period, we have seen:
Total cases as a % of the population: .35%
Total deaths as a % of the population: .02%
As you can see, there is a higher percentage of reported cases in the US versus Sweden, but the death rate in the US is a fraction of a fraction lower.
Which, again, begs the question does an additional death rate of .006% warrant shutting the country down, versus exercising governmental restraint as was the case in Sweden?
What about the trends? Maybe Sweden’s number of cases, and by extension, the deaths there, are rising more rapidly than in the US?
Eyeballing the charts, there isn’t a huge difference, but we’ll want to keep an eye on the data over the next month or so.
Since we are looking for examples from countries which have taken a more relaxed approach to the virus, let’s also look at the data from Brazil, whose Trump-like president Bolsonaro, is being pilloried in the international community for refusing to lock down the population there.
Total population of Brazil: 213,000,000
Total cases at this writing: 60,000
Total deaths: 4,000
Total cases as % of pop: .028%
Total deaths as % of pop: .0018%
The total death rate from all causes in Brazil is normally 6.5 per 1000 people, or .65%. Based on it’s population, that adds up to a total of 1,381,000 deaths each year.
Viewed from that perspective, the total deaths so far credited to the virus, at 4,000, or about 1,300 per month since February, isn’t even a rounding error. By comparison, there are about 5,000 shooting deaths a month in Brazil.
I could go on, but by now your eyes are probably crossing with all the numbers.
So, let’s turn from the numbers to some anecdotal input.
Anecdotes from Around the World
We have all heard the media accounts about the disasters in Spain, in Italy, and in China. Rather than taking the media at face value, which is rarely a good idea, I reached out to friends in several of the purported hotspots and asked them how things were going.
Here are their responses.
“Hi David, good to hear from you.
"I have only got a friend whose father caught the virus and luckily he is out of the woods after 3 weeks in hospital. That’s all.
"Here we are still in lock down but apparently next week we are going to begin a process of gradual unlocking in 4 phases that will last until end of June provided everything goes well.
"The economic situation in Spain is terrible. Today Q1 GDP figures were -5.2%, which could easily result in - 15% for the year as a whole and 20%+ unemployment rate. High probability of EU coming to the rescue in exchange for fiscal and financial control. This would be a blessing as it would prevent our socialist-communist government from doing more harm.
"On a personal note my family and I are all fine. Given the circumstances I am doing quite well with my investments (ytd return of 2.5/ on a fund I manage).
"You are really privileged to be able to play golf and ride your horses. Hopefully I will be able to do that too in the not too distant future.”
“The situation is better than reported by international MSM. In the Venice province all is relatively tranquil and I have no friends/acquaintances infected.
"All our difficulties have been caused by the insane policies of the catho-communist morons the are currently governing the country beyond and against our constitution and laws with the excuse of the emergency. This idiotic communist Francisco, who is bankrupting his own 2000 years old business, in association with the heirs of the strongest communist party in Western Europe, have set up a mixture that might become a lethal injection for the country.
"At onset of the pandemic, when all the conservatives called for immediate border controls and suppression measures regardless of where the people were coming from and regardless whether Chinese or not, the motto was “open borders” and “embrace a Chinese” because "we are not racists". Our President and Francisco actively participated in these TV shows brought by the 95% catho-communist media into every household. No surprise they found what they were looking for.
"Our daily life.
"After all, this is the best part of the story. We are spending our time under “house arrest” quite pleasantly, as long as there is no food shortage and/or social unrest (this latter is something I fear since all those who live on paycheck to paycheck have already run out of money). For now we are spending a kind of relaxing and even enjoyable vacation.”
"Here things are getting better now, only people that came back from abroad have to be in quarantine, others can move freely but the use of mask is mandatory."
So, interestingly, based simply on this very unscientific input, the thesis also doesn’t seem very strong. No accounts of carts moving through the streets collecting the dead.
My Personal Conclusions
Any way that I calculate it, the thesis stated at the beginning of this article -- that the coronavirus is an existential threat with the potential to kill as many people as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, therefore warranting the extreme actions being taken by global governments -- is completely and utterly disproven.
In fact, the coronavirus appears to be only slightly more deadly than a seasonal flu, which according to WHO kills up to 650,000 people a year.
Again, for the record, total deaths attributed to the coronavirus globally are now at 245,000.
That is not even in the same ballpark as the Spanish Flu, which as you’ll recall killed up to 5% of the global population, whereas the coronavirus currently weighs in at a global death rate of .003%.
So, why the gross overreaction?
Now we move into the realm of opinion. And here’s my opinion.
1. When it first struck, no one really understood the virus, how fast it could spread, and how deadly it would turn out. At that moment one could make the case for an excess of caution.
2. However, and I know this is controversial and pushes me further out on the conspiracist tree than I am comfortable, I believe that the media, enjoying attention like no other event since 911, and knowing that an economic disaster might finally take the shine off of Trump’s reelection chances, went all-in to raise the fear factor to unprecedented heights.
The old newspaper adage "If it bleeds, it leads", these days could be amended to be, "If it bleeds, or attacks Trump, it leads".
3. The Democratic party in the United States, which rated its own chances of beating Trump in 2020 somewhere near zero, likewise quietly embraced the idea of destroying the economy as a way of destroying Trump.
Could the media and the Democratic leadership be that cynical, that destructive? Given the concurrent pandemic of Trump Derangement Syndrome, I think the answer is yes, and that they are able to rationalize their actions as being the means to the end… the end of Trump.
As the US is the global thought leader, other countries simply fell in line.
But that’s just my opinion as to how we got here, and I could be very much wrong.
Turning to the good news, with hard data piling up each day, it can’t be all that long before governments are forced to start loosening their grips around the throats of their respective economies.
Here in Argentina, the neighboring province of Jujuy just announced a re-opening of restaurants and shops starting this next Saturday.
Hopefully that will trigger a similar loosening of the reins elsewhere in the country, as the country is already an economic basket case, so keeping the country’s businesses shutdown is literally economic suicide.
And for what? In a country of 40,000,000 people the 4,783 total cases equals .01% of the population.
As one country after another start loosening up, the others won’t be able to defend their own draconian clamp downs and, in the proverbial blink of an eye, the world be open for business again.
If I had to guess, I would say that things will be back to the new normal, whatever that entails, by August.
In the final analysis, I can only conclude that this whole affair ultimately will be covered in those chapters of history books dedicated to the madness and folly of humankind.
Until next time, when hopefully more of you will be free once again to wander your own happy trails.