It is worth the investment of your time to do some reading on the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. It was bad. It’s hard to know precise numbers but the experts who study such things estimate that the Spanish Flu infected as many as 500 million people worldwide – about a third of the world’s population at the time. As many as 50 million people died – including 675,000 in the United States. That’s a fatality rate of about ten percent – or as much as 900 times greater than the rate so far with COVID-19.
The U.S. population in 1918 was a bit more than 103 million. If a pandemic killed Americans in the same proportion to its current population, more than 2.1 million people would die.
So far in 2020, as this is being written, 4,513 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 complications. That’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the actual number of deaths in 1918 and an almost invisible fraction of the 1918 death rate made proportionate to a current U.S. population of 331 million.
None of this is meant to minimize the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are, in fact, some disturbing similarities between today’s pandemic and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. The Spanish Flu was a particularly contagious virus. So is the coronavirus that originally broke out in Wuhan, China late last year and has now spread worldwide. There was no flu vaccine in 1918. There is no COVID-19 vaccine in 2020. The Spanish Flu peaked in the spring of 1918 and then had a second peak that was even worse in the fall of 1918. There’s not one scrap of science anywhere that would rule out a second peak of COVID-19 in the fall of this year.
Given these facts, it is easy to imagine frighteningly high infection and mortality from this current pandemic. Policymakers at every level of government have so imagined and have responded by imposing restrictions on personal and commercial activity like none ever seen in our history. From a social and economic point of view, the government has effectively cancelled April.
The question thus arises; having imagined the mortality attendant to a runaway coronavirus pandemic, have our policy leaders taken the time to also imagine the mortality attendant to a shutdown of the American economy?
Have they considered the pathology that will certainly follow in the wake of millions of failed businesses and tens of millions of lost jobs? Have they thought about the spike in suicides and the premature deaths attributable to alcohol and drug abuse by people whose economic lives have been shattered? How about the failed marriages and the families broken apart? How many women and children will suffer from domestic violence?
With so much still not known about COVID-19, any policymaker who appears to be raising economic concerns ahead of health concerns is putting his head in the media’s guillotine.
But economic concerns will inevitably become health concerns. And that day is fast approaching.