Pandemic: inconvenient truths

First off, let me repeat what others have repeated: we will get through this.

Panic is not warranted; but changing a range of behaviors most certainly is. No plane travel, no more shaking hands, no more large gatherings, and work from home if you can. Get familiar with your bookshelf and pick up that instrument you haven’t played in a while.

That said, here are some truths about coronavirus (You probably already know these):

- It’s likely 5-10 times more deadly than the seasonal flu, which means a death rate of somewhere between 0.5% and 1%.

- If 30 percent of Americans eventually get it, which is a reasonable hypothetical low end for current estimates, that means that, on the low end of the projected death rate, approximately 490,000 people in the U.S. could die, mostly the elderly. One upper range estimate has 1.7 million Americans dying.

- In a bad year, about 80,000 people die of seasonal flu. In a good year, the number is about 12,000.

- The Trump administration is patently incapable of managing this crisis. The president himself has show little interest in managing anything other than the stock market. Thankfully, there are many competent state and local officials who are capable. Look to their recommendations.

- The current crisis is likely a dress rehearsal for a much worse plague in the future. As Amesh Adalja points out in a recent podcast with Sam Harris, avian flu has a death rate of up to 60 percent. And though avian flu is not currently known to be transmittable via human to human contact, it’s not inconceivable that such a mutation could happen. If it ever does, pray we are more prepared than we are now.

Now, here are some inconvenient (and uncomfortable) truths:

- It appears that competent authoritarian government is better suited to fight a pandemic than almost any liberal democracy. That’s no surprise, however, it doesn’t mean we in the West shouldn’t also be taking a long hard look at the reasons why (which I wrote about elsewhere).

- Carbon emissions will likely drop this year, possibly dramatically. Climate change also causes suffering and death, and anything that slows it will reduce that suffering and death. Carbon emissions always stall during recessions, but this recession, if it happens, will be unusually focused on the travel, hospitality, and service industries. The inconvenient truth is that it took a global pandemic to accomplish what legions of passionate environmental activists couldn’t.

- Furthermore, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that coronavirus could reset global travel habits permanently. Companies could discover that, having canceled conferences and asked employees to work from home, that they didn’t need the conferences at all, and employees are happier working from home. The travel habits of millions could change, and change for the better.

- And finally: we are a planet-devouring species, responsible for the extinction of countless animals and organisms with whom we share the earth. Of course, every human death is a tragedy. For those who may have family who succumb, even more so. And yet, mother nature may simply be taking her turn at fighting off that species which seems so intent on destroying her: us.