, 16 tweets, 3 min read
This thread is about the notion that the mortality rates for COVID-19 aren’t really high enough to warrant serious alarm. If you are already struggling with anxiety, you may want to stop here. Please only share this first tweet, so people can make that choice for themselves.
[I'm pausing here so people who are already struggling with anxiety can mute this thread if they choose.]
I have heard a number of people say that the mortality rate isn’t very high for young, healthy people. China’s numbers indicated a mortality rate of 0.2-0.4% for people under 50, and experts believed that might be an overestimate. Let’s suppose it’s half that.
A mortality rate of something like 0.1-0.2% doesn’t sound that bad. That’s about how often the home team comes back from a 7-run deficit in the bottom of the 9th inning of a baseball game. If your team is up by 7, you probably aren’t too worried.
But even for those of us who take sports very seriously, our tolerance to the risk of losing a baseball game is very different from our tolerance to the risk of losing a life. We don’t take 0.1-0.2% risks to our lives very often, or very willingly.
Suppose you get in a car with me for a 10-mile drive. How much risk are you taking? The US average is 11 deaths per billion miles driven, so there’s roughly a 0.0000011% chance our drive results in a death. You still take that risk seriously and buckle your seat belt.
Now suppose we get on the highway and I floor it. We hit 80 mph and you think “huh, Eric drives fast.” We hit 90 mph and maybe you’re a little uncomfortable. We hit 100 mph and you’re really squirming. But what’s your actual risk?
My gut-feel answer was that maybe it’s gone up by a factor of 100, to 0.0001%. I looked briefly for data and couldn’t find an exact answer, but sciencedirect.com/science/articl… suggests that’s in the right ballpark.
So you’re still 1000 times safer zooming down the highway at 100 mph than a young, healthy person with COVID-19.
How fast do I have to go to get your risk up to 0.1%? That’s really hard to guess. Maybe it’s 150 mph. Maybe it’s 200 mph. Whatever the exact number is, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be sitting in the passenger seat saying “eh, still just 0.1%, no big deal.”
And that’s the risk for young, healthy people! The risk for the elderly is more like 10%, and people are still brushing that off.
If we had a nationwide epidemic of people sneaking into nursing homes and murdering 1-in-10 residents, I don’t think anyone’s reaction would be “eh, they were old. It happens.”
So why is our reaction to a serious epidemic so different from these scenarios? I think it’s because we have a visceral feel for the risk of driving fast that we don’t have yet for COVID-19. Most of us don’t yet know anyone who is seriously ill, so “0.1%” is still an abstraction.
The problem is that by the time everyone sees sick people around them, it’s too late. Epidemiologists have been sounding the alarm because they can see how fast this is spreading and believe it’s likely to reach a point where that mortality rate doesn’t feel abstract anymore.
And now our job is to try to slow that spread. Minimize your social interactions. Assume someone around you is carrying the virus, and wash your hands after touching common surfaces (doorknobs, handrails, and the like). Do what you can to avoid taking that 150+ mph drive.
A few questions came up repeatedly throughout the day. Here's my attempt to put together some responses.
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