Corona Chaos

Congress looks like it will pass a bill aimed at stemming some of the economic pain from the precautions taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. Notice I said pain from “precautions,” not pain from the virus itself.  

COVID-19 is estimated to be between 10 and 20 times more deadly than the regular flu, or influenza, so we should take it seriously. But our national reaction is quickly moving from concern to panic. That seems premature. We’re not Italy, which has much greater cause for concern.  

The new virus appears many times more deadly than the regular flu, but the numbers are likely skewed too high because many people who get the new virus never report it. They suffer light symptoms and go about their days. We’re comparing deaths to an artificially low number of infections. It appears that young children get only mild cases of the disease, so their parents never have them tested.  

So far, older men are the most at risk of serious complications and death. Italy has a lot of those, and they tend to congregate.  

Places like nursing homes in Washington State are rightly concerned. But colleges? Elementary schools? People going to work on a daily basis? We’re clamping down the economy in a way that seems outsized to the problem, and we’re about to spend a lot of money on a solution that the calendar will take care of, at least in part.  

We’re comfortable with 40 million or so Americans a year getting the regular flu, accompanied by 40,000 deaths. We’re encouraged to get flu shots, which most of us don’t, and to wash our hands often, which many of us don’t.  

About 1,200 Americans have the coronavirus. The number is growing, but not by the thousands, much less the millions. 

Around the world, almost 400 million people get the flu each year, and an estimated 389,000 perish from complications. To date, roughly 4,700 people have died from the coronavirus. 

And yet, we’re starting to wear masks, which tend to stop infected people from spreading the disease more than they help people avoid it. And we’re buying Purell like it’s a magic tonic. The NBA suspended the season, the president implemented a travel ban on Europe, carving out exceptions for the U.K. and Ireland, and Washington State has banned public gatherings of more than 250 people.   

We talk about flu season because such viruses spread quickly in cold weather, then go all but dormant in warm weather. Infections peak in February, with the second highest number in December, followed by March. In April, infections drop dramatically. A quick look at the calendar tells me we’re getting close to that natural end.  

That doesn’t mean we won’t feel economic pain. The supply chain disruptions in China are real. We don’t know how big the effects will be, but we’ll have an idea by late April and early May. We might see some odd shortages of items that include Chinese components. 

But we don’t have to make things worse here at home by shutting down daily activities and assuming every sniffle is COVID-19. Millions of Americans have the regular old flu right now. Thousands could have COVID-19, but it’s so mild, or so like the regular flu, that they’ll never be tested.  

The least helpful thing will be long-lasting, generalized government assistance programs that throw cash at a problem that testing kits and time can tackle. Knowing who has this disease, especially among those who are older or work with an older population, can be life-saving. Giving workers an extra $50 in their monthly paychecks won’t help.  

As for targeted relief, it’s easy to say and hard to do. It’s easy to identify the laid off hotel worker because travelers cancel reservations. It’s harder to trace the line back to the restaurant near the hotel that fed workers and guests, or the supply company that handled that establishment’s linens. The assistance legislation quickly winding its way through Congress is well-intentioned, but it will have to be so broad as to create another economic safety umbrella, or dramatically increase access to existing programs.  

On the business side, we can see that airlines and hotels will suffer, but is it the place of the government to rescue them? Are we going to rescue the fracking industry because the Saudis and Russians are fighting, and neither side is too upset that their tiff is destroying American companies? Will we make investor retirement accounts whole because people own stock in all of these companies? Where do we draw the line, and what do we say to those on the other side of that line, the ones who didn’t quite make it in?  

It’s eerily similar to saving the car companies, and some, but not all, of the banks during the financial crisis. Picking winners and losers with taxpayer money is a dangerous game that is certain to make some people happy, and many people angry.  

April can’t get here fast enough.