Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

COVID-19 reactions doing more harm than good?

with 6 comments

Occasionally, I encounter threats (or even “threats”*) where the counter-measures, on the balance, do more harm than good. A prime example is nuclear power, where the extreme “anti” stances have left us with a very considerable increase of damage both to the environment and to human lives, because the energy not coming from nuclear power has to a large part come from fossil fuels.

*Depending on how lose criteria are used, the list could be made very long, including a great many of the things politicians do. However, also see an excursion at the end.

The current COVID-19 epidemic might well be another example. Obviously, no discussion, the death of a few* percent of the world’s population would be a great disaster, worthy of very far-going counter-measures. However, the current death-toll is in the thousands (!) and the clear majority is still in China, with e.g. Germany having 11 and Sweden 2 deaths.** Despite this, we have schools being closed, air flights and sports seasons being canceled, some shortages appearing, the stock exchanges crashing, news reporting on other topics being neglected, … Then there is the impediment to economic growth.

*There appears to be a great uncertainty around the actual death rate, but the numbers that I have seen so far have typically been 2.x or 3.x percent of the infected.

**Data from Wikipedia on the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic in version 945690424.

Are the counter-measures and reactions truly in proportion to the threat—or would lesser or alternate counter-measures, doing less damage, be better? Moreover, if we react this way to one epidemic, what will happen when the next one comes around? (Especially, if we are taught to react with panic.) From another perspective: what about all the other dangers that costs so many more lives per year at the moment—and does so year in and year out?* A chain-smoker, e.g., would be a fool to fear the current epidemic while continuing his smoking habits. Averaging** over a life-time, the risk of death is already above one percent per year, which is the same order as COVID-19 among those infected (and currently much lower when we look at the overall populations).

*Here a very wide range of issues can come into play, natural, societal, and individual. Consider, e.g. and respectively, deaths through extreme floods and droughts, deaths through air pollution and traffic accidents, and deaths through smoking and poor diet.

**The risk is obviously very different at e.g. 20 and 80, but this applies equally to those infected, in that the chance of surviving at 20 is much higher than at 80. Exactly how the distributions compare is beyond my knowledge; however, having the first approximation be the same in both cases does not seem unreasonable. Of course, the reduced risk of death at younger ages is also something to consider when looking at e.g. the risk of visiting a sports event below.

Consider, for a more specific illustration, sports: The current attitude seems to be that all events and seasons must be canceled immediately (or, on the outside, be postponed)—and anyone who is not in favor of this is a cold-hearted villain, prioritizing money over human lives. However, there are other alternatives, including a more controlled reduction that still allows a fair choice of e.g. league champions, reductions of the number of visitors* to reduce the risks, moving the events from a “live audience” to a pay-per-view one, and likely quite a few others. Especially, if we do not take any specific counter-measures, then any risk will typically be on the individuals own head, in that no-one actually forces him to e.g. go to a soccer game—he can go or not go as he sees fit.** A significantly increased risk for players need not be present either: have them travel by private bus or plane and reduce the contact with fans (e.g. by keeping physical buffer zones between the two groups). This assuming, of course, that there is a risk of infection to begin with, which might or might not be the case in any given country at any given time.

*Cf. excursion. Note that this could go hand-in-hand with a price hike, partially neutralizing the loss of revenue, because a smaller supply allows for higher prices for the wealthier or more hard-core fans.

**In a twist, this might well be why the cold-hearted villains are in favor of termination—with the season terminated, there is no risk of losing money on events with too few paying customers.

Excursion on non-lethal outcomes:
Obviously, even a non-lethal infection is not be to be trifled with, as this is a severe disease for the patient and an extra burden on hospitals. However, the same line of argumentation holds even if we look at COVID-19 infections in general, especially as many are low on symptoms. For instance, consider the negative health consequences on the patient and the burden on the health-care system from chain smoking.

Excursion on size of gathering:
The size of a gathering plays in two-fold: The more people are present, the greater the risk that someone will carry the infection; and the more people are present, the greater the number of people at risk. (Where the latter effect grows through the risk that the personal closeness increases with the size of the crowd, but shrinks through limits on how many others that any given person can infect, by e.g. distances involved.) Not having a giant stadium filled to the last seat might make great sense even if the risk of infection is low—but does the same apply to the same stadium with e.g. only one seat in ten occupied? Does it apply to a class room with two dozen children, or even a school with a few hundred children? Only for a considerable larger risk of infection.

Excursion on a flawed attitude towards sports:
Obviously, here we see another issue that I have complained about in the past: a faulty prioritization of athlete vs. audience, athlete vs. sports organization, winning and/or competing vs. earning money, etc. If what truly counted was the sport and the competition, then the various leagues and championships would still take place even if there was no audience of any kind.

Excursion on threats that disappeared:
There have been quite a few cases of apparent threats that proved far less harmful than originally claimed. To automatically classify these as misunderstood non-threats or “threats” might go too far, however: it might be that the threat was overstated to begin with; it might be that the counter-measure taken are what neutralized the threat; it might be some combination of the two. AIDS, e.g., was painted as doomsday disease when I first encountered reporting in the early or mid 1980s. The actual spread and damage done was far smaller, but this reporting very likely led to more cautious sexual habits. What would have happened without this change of habits? (Similarly, if COVID-19 were to silently disappear over the next few weeks, this would not automatically imply that the threat was overrated.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 15, 2020 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

6 Responses

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  1. […] my recent text on COVID-19 reactions, the stream with we-are-shutting-this-and-that-down, stock-exchanges-are-crashing, etc., has […]

  2. […] really had not intended to write more than the one text on COVID-19; certainly, not to go beyond the second […]

  3. […] certainty that the counter-measures has done more harm than good, which I speculated as far back as mid-march. It also shows that the effects of COVID can be both highly indirect and only manifest fully in a […]

  4. […] in well with things that I began to say as early as March 2020, or roughly ten months ago. (See [1] and [2], as well as quite a few later […]

  5. […] to at least some criteria. From my personal point of view, we are days away from the anniversary of my first text on the topic. I posed the question “COVID-19 reactions doing more harm than good?”, to which the answer, one […]

  6. […] *Indeed, my first text is dated 15th of March, 2020. […]


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