Data are coming in, and their import is clear. The coronavirus pandemic is not and never was a threat to society. COVID-19 poses a danger to the elderly and the medically compromised. Otherwise, for most who present symptoms, it can be nasty and persistent, but is not life-threatening. A majority of those infected do not notice that they have the disease. Coronavirus presents us with a medical challenge, not a crisis. The crisis has been of our own making.
On March 16, Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London predicted a coronavirus death toll of more than two million in the United States alone. He arrived at this number by assuming that infection would be nearly universal and the fatality rate would be high—a terrifying prospect. The next day, Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis sifted through the data and predicted less widespread infection and a fatality rate of between 0.05 and 1.0 percent—not that different from the common flu. The coronavirus is not the common flu. It has different characteristics, afflicting the old more than the young, men more than women. Nevertheless, all data trends since mid-March show that Ferguson was fantastically wrong and Ioannidis was largely right about its mortal threat.
But Ferguson’s narrative has triumphed, helped by our incontinent and irresponsible media. A young doctor in Wuhan died—COVID-19 must be dangerous and deadly for everybody. Hospitals in Italy are overwhelmed—we are witnessing a pandemic of epic proportions. China succeeded with draconian methods of mass quarantine—these must be our only hope of protection against the coming disaster.
By the end of March, most of the United States had been locked down. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs. More than $6 trillion has been spent to save society from complete collapse. Relentless warnings have whipped the populace into frenzies of fear. All of this to contain a disease that, as far as we can tell at this point, is not significantly more fatal than the flu. Moreover, given how rapidly the coronavirus spreads, it seems likely that the radical and untested method of lockdown does little to control it.
In other words, the science increasingly shows that the measures we have taken in the last few weeks have been both harmful—with freedoms lost, money spent, livelihoods destroyed—and pointless.
This statement will provoke outrage. Most will insist that it is not true. But a study from the Oise region of France found an infection rate of 25 percent—which, if it is true for France as a whole, suggests that the virus fatality rate in that country (which is considered hard-hit) is 0.13 percent. Studies of Santa Clara and Los Angeles County likewise show rates of infection far higher than experts imagined possible, indicating fatality rates of 0.1-0.2 percent, again in line with Ioannidis’s analysis. A study of women at a New York hospital who gave birth during the pandemic, and a study of a homeless shelter in Boston, likewise point to a disease far more widespread than testing has identified—and therefore with a far lower fatality rate than previously thought.
Researchers reported that more than 30 percent of the densely populated town of Chelsea in the Boston area likely already had the virus. There the death toll has been significant, leading to higher fatality rates, though still within the range identified by Ioannidis. The same holds for studies done in Delaware and Miami, as well as Geneva, Switzerland.
In epidemiology, nothing is certain. The facts may change in the future. But as of now, this much is certain: Current data point to a disease that is far less deadly than was feared when our country hurled itself over the cliff of mass lockdown. The WHO was at that time issuing warnings that presumed a death rate 20-30 times higher than what now appears realistic.
We need fact-based policies. COVID-19 spreads rapidly, and any fast-spreading disease can strain medical resources as incidences rise. Long recovery times increase patient loads in hospitals. Careful planning and resource allocation are therefore essential. They were accomplished successfully in New York, much to the credit of medical professionals here. The American people need to be told of that success, which, given the density of New York, shows that we can and will succeed everywhere in our country.
We need to be told the truth about COVID-19’s effect. It is not a uniquely perilous disease; for people under 35, it may be less dangerous than the flu. We have every reason to take prudent measures to protect vulnerable people from the disease, but we cannot reasonably expect to contain the coronavirus. The high proportion of asymptomatic carriers defeats strategies of testing and tracing contacts. In all likelihood, it also defeats such radical measures as lockdowns, as the example of Sweden seems to suggest.
These truths point toward clear and urgent action. We need to allocate resources for protecting vulnerable populations. We need rigorous testing of nursing home workers (a five-country study in Europe reported that 50 percent of coronavirus fatalities occurred in elder-care facilities) and others who care for vulnerable populations. We need to allocate funding for at-risk poor people to move to hotels or other places where they can self-isolate.
We can do this without closing every restaurant and bar. We can do this without locking churches, without requiring everybody to stay at home, without throwing tens of millions of Americans out of work. The lockdowns can and must end.
But I doubt that truth will guide decision-making. There is too much fear. Fear of the virus is compounded by the (reasonable) fear of experts, policy-makers, and politicians that if they change course they will be exposed as poorly informed, reckless, and cowardly. Our entire ruling class, which united behind catastrophism and the untested methods of mass shutdown, is implicated in the unfolding fiasco.
Journalists continue to sustain the pandemic narrative. Ioannidis is still ignored, though the evidence I outlined above has been building for weeks. Scientists who should know better are either gullible or too cowardly to speak.
We’ve been stampeded into a regime of social control that is unprecedented in our history. Our economy has been shattered. Ordinary people have been terrorized by death-infused propaganda designed to motivate obedience to the limits on free movement. We have been reduced to life as medical subjects in our condition of self-quarantine. As unemployment numbers skyrocket and Congress spends trillions, the political stakes rise.
The experts, professionals, bureaucrats, and public officials who did this to us have tremendous incentives to close ranks and say, “It is not wise to tell people that the danger was never grave and now has passed.” Sustaining the coronavirus narrative will require many lies. It will be up to us to insist on the truth.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.