I’m not a medical expert. But having watched scores of experts’ YouTube videos and blog posts on the COVID-19 crisis, I feel ready to draw some important conclusions.
I believe the truth on the coronavirus will become obvious fairly soon. That is, the crisis of the epidemic will be over, and it will become merely our chronic political crisis. It will become a crisis of narrative rather than a crisis of knowledge.
The Experts Weigh in
The two experts I have found most knowledgeable and convincing are William “Matt” Briggs, who earned a PhD in statistics from Cornell and taught there, and Rockefeller University and German epidemiologist Knut Wittkowski.
These are two voices in the wilderness shouting against the prevailing wisdom.
I drew ten conclusions. Since I am neither statistician nor epidemiologist nor professor nor politician, I can oversimplify their arguments without violating any academic or professional norms. Here they are:
- COVID–19 is basically another respiratory virus like many others. Yes, it can be fatal to the elderly and those with serious health risks. No doubt. But fearsome death rates are largely a function of testing biased toward acute cases. The tests are flawed by false positives and false negatives. Asymptomatic spread is speculative in the absence of antibody surveys that measure immunity.
- All respiratory viruses end through herd immunity, whether through direct exposure or artificial vaccination.
- Social distancing, closed schools, and obsessive masking prolong the epidemic and ensure a second peak comparable to the first. By flattening the curve, they widen it and thus render it more menacing to more people.
- The more that young people get exposed, the better. They are the vessel of herd immunity. Closing schools delays the immunity and tends to expose vulnerably old and frail grandparents in the home.
- By delaying herd immunity and assuring secondary peaks in the fall, school closings and other lockdowns will increase the number of deaths among the population of vulnerable and old people.
- As Briggs writes: “The H1N1 virus responsible for many deaths is still with us. The 2020 data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) affirms, “Nationally, influenza A(H1N1) pdm09 viruses are now the most commonly reported influenza viruses this season.”
- Given the ease with which coronavirus spreads, it’s reasonable to suppose variants of COVID–19, like common colds and other respiratory distresses, including deadly pneumonia, will be with us for years to come.
- Briggs and Wittkowski agree that most testing is unreliable because of false positives, especially in initial testing. Fewer are misclassifications of deaths due to the bug but there is a tendency to suppose that deaths with the virus are caused by it.
- The conclusion, says Briggs, “is that it’s nuts to implement large–scale testing on a population. It will lead to huge numbers of false positives — which will be everywhere painted as true positives — and more panic.”
- Although closing down the private economy may seem plausible to physicians and politicians, it is an extreme overreaction to viruses that we will always have with us and provides a dreadful precedent for future crises.
The worst projections turned out to be woefully wrong. We were told hundreds of thousands would die even with lockdowns and radical social distancing measures.
The Italians scared everybody with their haphazard health system and one of the oldest populations on the planet.
The crammed-together New Yorkers in subways and tenements registered a brief blip of extreme cases. Intubations and ventilators turned out not to help (80% died), sowing fear and frustration among medical personnel.
But the latest figures on overall death rates from all causes show no increase at all. Deaths are lower than in 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2015, slightly higher than in 2016.
I won’t make light of anyone’s death from this or any other disease, but deaths have been far below initial projections.
It was these wild projections that prompted the panicked lockdown. But it would have been an outrage even if the assumptions were not wildly wrong.
People Need to Get Outside
Flattening the curve was always a fool’s errand that only widened the damage.
In fact, by impeding herd immunity, particularly among students and other young people, the lockdown has prolonged and exacerbated the medical problem. As Briggs concludes, “People need to get out into virus–killing sunshine and germicidal air.”
This flu like all previous viral flus will give way only to herd immunity, whether through natural propagation of an extremely infectious pathogen, or through the success of one of the hundreds of vaccine projects.
Meanwhile, we all heard from politicians about a so–called “ventilator crisis.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo got $80 million worth of the contraptions and suggested he needed $800 million worth.
“More Money Is Always the Answer”
But that’s how governments think. More money is always the answer. More of the same. But what we need is entrepreneurial thinking.
Economist Gale Pooley of BYU in Honolulu and The Discovery Institute alerts me to the development in India of a new $200 smartphone–based ventilator system that fits in the palm of your hand.
Bypassing healthcare professionals, it uses machine learning to adapt to the rhythms of breathing and to adjust air flow to the lung conditions of patients.
It replaces the $2 million manually managed machines that have been widely deployed (ineffectively) to fight acute cases of lung failure from the coronavirus. According to urgent testimony from the front, these costly ventilators may have actually been killing patients as much as saving them.
Besides, the increasing recognition of herd immunity as the key to overcoming viral epidemics represents a huge advance over closing down businesses, schools, and economies.
We can’t leave the big decisions to government. The real solutions will come from the private sector.
The Private Sector Is the Answer
Wealth is knowledge and growth is learning. Learning accelerates in crises. Creativity always comes as a surprise to us. It is the result of free enterprise, which responds more quickly in the face of urgent needs than government.
Government guarantees tend to thwart the surprises of learning and growth. For example, if the government guarantees $2 million ventilators, there is no push to develop $200 devices like the one I mentioned.
The ventilator makers get rich, but no one else really benefits. It only deters innovation rather than spurs it.
On the optimistic side, the coronavirus crisis can well emerge as a time of new learning and economic growth rather than depression and paralysis.
Nassim Taleb’s theme of “anti–fragility” means crisis does not break free economies. It strengthens them, spurring invention and inspiring entrepreneurs.
The key is to leave open as many paths of learning and entrepreneurship as possible. Shutdowns and closures only inhibit the surprises of creativity and experiment that have saved humanity over the centuries of the capitalist miracle.
It’s possible that the economy, and your investments, will ultimately be enhanced by this crisis if we let the private sector work its magic.
for The Daily Reckoning