What is more dangerous to a community, suffering a catastrophe that is fatal to one tenth of 1 percent of its population, or throwing its entire economy into chaos?
It’s easier to answer this question if we use an example, so imagine you lived in a community of 2,000 people. Let’s say half of them work and the other half are retired, or are children, or have disabilities, etc. Of the 1,000 who work, let’s say 15 produce milk, 21 produce electricity, 32 repair cars and trucks, 39 are doctors and so on.
All told, these 1,000 workers provide people with food, clothing, water, energy, shelter, medical services, internet access and everything else this community of 2,000 needs on a daily basis.
It would be a terrible blow to this economy if 10 percent of the population died in a medical catastrophe, but this kind of thing has happened before. About 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, but the city survived.
So a 10 percent fatality rate does not necessarily destroy a community, much less a 1 percent rate, which is definitely survivable, as long as people don’t panic. But if a large portion of the population panics and stops working, that can cause real harm.
For example, if 40 percent of the 1,000 workers in the economy described above stopped working, that would be terrible. There would be a 40 percent drop in the amount of goods and services that economy produced. That would be a gigantic loss that would have dire consequences.
And it wouldn’t be easy to predict what those consequences would be.
For example, you could order all food-production workers to stay on the job, but how could an egg farmer, for example, get his eggs to market if the cardboard factory stopped making egg cartons?
The point is, stopping the production of goods and services can be more dangerous to a community than enduring a medical crisis that has a 1 percent fatality rate, or a half of 1 percent — or in the case of this coronavirus, perhaps one tenth of 1 percent of the people who contract it.
One tenth of 1 percent? Sure.
Recognize that the vast majority of people who contract the virus never show any serious symptoms and aren’t even “diagnosed” with the disease. All you ever read about is the small percentage who are tested, and even among those the fatality rate is very low.
So we need to realize that there is no need to panic today.
Even in Italy, which has been hit hard, as of March 24 there have been fewer than 7,000 deaths out of a country of 60,000,000. That’s a hundredth of 1 percent of the population who have died. And even if the tally reaches 60,000 (Really?) that is still only one tenth of 1 percent.
Italy can survive that. But what is harder to survive is an economic shutdown that stops 30 or 40 percent of all economic activity. That’s real disruption. That will cause people to lose jobs, default on rent and mortgage payments and possibly even go hungry. That’s very destructive to the health of any community.
So here is my advice to our leaders: Don’t be so anxious to shut everything down. That can do more harm to a community than suffering a medical catastrophe, even one that takes the lives of one tenth of 1 percent of your population.
Just as the captain on a ship may have to lock a watertight door and leave three sailors inside in order to keep a ship full of 3,000 passengers afloat, sometimes leaders have to make hard choices that keep an economy and a community afloat, lest they cause more harm than good.
Accepting the inevitable loss of three sailors, something that happens all the time on the open seas, may sound heartless, but to whom? Certainly not t0 the other 3,000 passengers who survive.
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