We are suffering from a dangerous disease. This disease causes us to repeat exciting news that might not be true. We look for this news because it makes us feel competent and important. This gullibility-disease also makes us stupid because the news is often exaggerated. The coronavirus of 2020 is our latest example. We could call it Coronavirus Derangement Syndrome, but that sounds too much like the CDC, and that abbreviation is already discredited. The news does a terrible job, so we need a long-term prescription of skepticism. We want to understand how this gullibility-disease works and what real reporting would look like.
The sensational media looks too much like this-
Mr. Prettyface says, ‘The sun came up this morning, and several models of the end of the world begin with the sun coming up. Ms. Prettyface, this could be the catastrophe that experts predicted. What do you think?’
Ms. Prettyface says, ‘Yes, I read the reports from Mr. Smartface, and his story about the end of the world certainly started with the sun coming up. We have several verified reports from our correspondents in Washington that the sun actually came up, so this could be disastrous.
Mr. Prettyface says, ‘More breaking news about the end of the world after this commercial for life insurance.’
We had some reports that a novel respiratory disease killed an unexpected number of people. Epidemics look like that, so this could be the beginning of an epidemic.. or not. The word “could” has a very clear meaning. “Could” means ‘something unusual happened, and we don’t know what it is.’ We might make that phrase simpler, and shorten it to S.U.H.A.W.D.K.W.I.I., but I prefer another approach. Let’s replace ‘could’ with ‘something we don’t know.’
We saw some people die of an unusual illness. We think this is a virus. This is ‘something we don’t know.’
When we were first learning about ‘something we don’t know’ we found out that it killed as many as a thousand people in Europe. That fact is fascinating, but not meaningful. To understand this number, we have to compare something that we don’t know to the diseases we see year after year. Here in the USA, we might see 600 people die a day from the flu in a bad season like the fall and winter of 2017-2018. Now we start to have some perspective on the news. A thousand people a day is certainly serious, but not shocking.
As of last week, New York City was the hotspot for the coronavirus in the US with the highest rate of infection. They estimated that a total of 40 thousand people in New York City were admitted to hospitals with symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. That sounds end-of-the-world disastrous.
40 thousand hospital admissions is slightly less than one-half-of-one percent of the population of the five boroughs. Fewer than one-person-in-220 sought treatment and was put into the hospital for either observation, isolation, or treatment. In a bad year for the ordinary flu, about 800 thousand of us in the USA go to the hospital due to the flu. That is one-out-of-400 for the flu, and one-out-of-220 for the coronavirus. 40 thousand people in New York City going to the hospital is a clear cause for concern, but it won’t sell life insurance after you understand it.
New York City had as many as 16 thousand deaths due to the coronavirus in 2020. That means that the illness may be lethal to as many as 40-percent of the patients hospitalized. That sounds like the disease is particularly deadly. In the USA, the flu is usually fatal to about ten percent of the people admitted to the hospital. The coronavirus clearly seems several times more difficult to treat than the usual strains of the flu. That is interesting, but it might not sell life insurance.
As of today, April 25th, we are several weeks past the peak-rate of daily fatalities ascribed to Covid19. We’ve had about 46 thousand deaths attributed to the virus so far here in the USA. That sounds shocking, but stay tuned for more news.
A serious season of the flu kills about 61 thousand of us in the USA. Most of these victims had prior medical complications. That means a previous illness prevented them from recovering from the flu. As you’d expect, the elderly are particularly vulnerable. That is true of Covid 19 cases also. The virus of 2020 is unusual, so many young people have never seen a similar virus in their lifetime. That puts some younger people at risk. That is bad news, but it won’t sell life insurance. Not if you say it like that.
The death toll from Covid 19 could be as high as 100 thousand people in the USA. That means that ‘something we don’t know’ could be about two and a half times as deadly as the usual flu. Many hospitals can only take a 60 percent increase before they have to reconfigure the way they operate. That might sell insurance for a day, but it takes a lot of salesmanship to turn that into a panic.
Maybe I’ve given you a vaccine for the news. We’ll see who the real anti-vaxxers are.