The great write-off

The fact that the potential US death toll was revised so substantially and abruptly, to 100k, shows how wrong the initial narrative was, which was the promise or hope that a combination of shutdowns, quarantines, and social distancing would keep the total number of fatalities low, perhaps 10,000 at most, versus potentially hundreds of thousands. But now that has gone out the window with these recent projections and the worsening situation in New York, especially. Of course, the 100k projection could be wrong, and maybe the number of deaths will level out at 10-30,000 or so.

I think policy makers in Washington are secretly weighing the option of just unilaterally relaxing the most draconian of restrictions while still advising that individuals exercise caution, although states are free to impose restrictions of their own. That is the policy I support: let businesses and individuals act on their own accord and at their own personal risk, although the NAP-libertarian argument can be invoked that such risks are shared by those who don’t consent and or who are at heightened risk, such as the elderly or individuals who choose to quarantine.

These 100k+ projected deaths can be treated as a large write-off, similar to a totaled car or property damage due to natural disaster or fire. Even if exiting measures are kept in place , which are already seen by some as excessive and hurting businesses, there will still be lot of deaths. It’s time to just mentally write-off as many as 1 million people dying and get on with our lives. Even if the 100k deaths forecast comes true, that is still only 3x more deaths than the average number of Americans who die of the seasonal flu. Like Covid-19, flu deaths are almost exclusively concentrated among the elderly or those with preexisting conditions such as heart disease. A 1.5% morality rate and 100k deaths means just under 6.7 million Americans will be affected. By comparison there are 40 million flu cases/year and over a billion colds. Of course, without such restrictions, the number of Covid-19 cases will be higher, but how much is hard to know.

But a common counterargument is that the economic consequences of having hundreds of thousands or even a million of people die far outweighs the short-term economic inconvenience and losses attributable the shutdowns and quarantines. But we’re already up to 100k possible deaths WITH existing measures in place. 2 weeks ago, the possibility of so many deaths seemed inconceivable, but here we are. So that casts doubt on the efficacy of such measures to even save that many lives.

Also, one can point to tentative good news, such as the number of daily cases in some countries, such as Italy, are falling, such as 6k cases/day to now 4k cases/day. So doesn’t that prove that the quarantines are working? Possibly, but at what cost. The question arises, when you you stop the shutdowns and quarantines? When the daily number of cases falls below some certain threshold? That can take months and the potential economic damage can be substantial to get there. And ending quarantines may mean that cases may resume exponential growth unless a vaccine is found.

Just running some numbers, if we assume 100 million Americans are infected under a ‘worse case’ scenario in which all quarantines and shutdowns are relaxed–given there are 70 million Americans over the age of 60, and assuming 1/3 become infected, and assuming a 4 percent morality rate–gives total of 1 million elderly deaths. If we assume a 3% morality rate, then the number of elderly deaths falls to 700k. Assuming a .3% death rate for the age range of 25-60 years (and zero deaths for <25), gives 160,000 under-60 deaths. This also assumes everyone who needs a ventilator can get one, which may not be possible if hospitals become too crowded, although supply will increase as demand rises, so the situation is not as dire as it may seem.

As many as 1 million Americans dying in a single year of Covid-19 may seem catastrophic for the economy, but consider that the US population historically grows at 1%/year, so the lost GDP is replaced in just 4 months. Such economic loss is also offset also to some degree by the fact that the elderly are past peak productive and reproductive years and that their wealth will go to their heirs, who will spent it on homes and such. Deaths will also reduce social security and other spending such as medicare.

By comparison, WW2 cost 420k US lives (or about 1.02 million adjusted for today’s population) and considerably more injuries and permanent disabilities, but the US economy boomed afterwards. The void was quickly filled by new population growth and economic activity, and things soon returned to normal. In a year or two there will possibly be a vaccine, so that is reason for hope. Furthermore, whereas Covid-19 deaths are mostly limited to the elderly, the casualties of war are young men with families and decades of life and productive years ahead of them.

In addition, the small percentage of young and middle-aged people who have underlying conditions (such as morbid obesity, diabetes, etc.) and die, will not be able to propagate their genes and hence Covid-19 may have a positive eugenic effect and reduce healthcare costs in the long-run.