Just two years ago the flu reared its ugly head, causing over 60,000 deaths and 810,000 hospitalizations across the U.S. In contrast, COVID-19 so far has caused roughly 55,000 deaths and roughly 95,000 hospitalizations. Given the severity of the 2017-2018 flu, one would have expected the country to shutter in fear the way it has for COVID-19, especially given that the last line of defense—a proven vaccine—was significantly stymied by this virus strain.
But, as we all know, fear and panic did not materialize for this particular flu. Life continued on as normal. Although occasionally mentioned in the press, the outbreak was essentially a non-issue and the public seemed almost uninterested. Instead of the COVID-19 government mandates creating massive unemployment and destroying trillions of dollars of wealth, the economy during this flu season boomed. Businesses prospered and the consumer was king as the interactive retail sector became red hot. The Dow continued its rise toward 30,000.
How could a people so uninterested in a virus that caused 60,000 deaths act so differently just two years later? On one hand, it was business as usual; and on the other, a panic-stricken hysteria.
One explanation is that human nature tends to be more fearful of the devil we don’t know compared to the devil we know. But even after the devil we supposedly knew, the flu, morphed into a much more deadly killer, there was still no panic. Another explanation is that COVID-19 initially looked to be more contagious and more lethal, but with new studies suggesting many more have had the virus than previously thought, more researchers have revised the COVID-19 death rate lower with some suggesting a mortality rate that might match that of the flu at 0.1 percent. And although COVID-19 is clearly more contagious, the majority of cases have shown minimal symptoms or have been asymptomatic. Social distancing has clearly been effective in reducing deaths, yet the fact is that both viruses have wreaked comparable havoc on the country. So, the question again: Why has the country reacted so dissimilarity?
Clearly, the incessant and nonstop media coverage has played a huge role in creating the divergent reaction. The media today is focused nonstop on COVID-19, completely opposite of the coverage during the 2017-2018 flu outbreak. Although the media deserves its share of criticism for this fearmongering, the American public must also share the blame because as a society we have continued to demand every bit of this coverage—and with a void of the usual distractions, from work to school to sports, we have become obsessed with the often bleak news coverage.
Our elected officials, the governors and mayors especially, have done their part to promote the excessive pandemic hype as well. The allure of being in the media spotlight to stoke public fear as a means to prove their own leader-like virility has only added to the national malaise. The tendency has been to find all sorts of new prohibitions and closures that work to fortify the tangible and psychological barriers to an economic restart. Fortunately, rebellion is now building to oppose this type of autocratic behavior and it cannot come too soon. Is there any doubt that the governors continuing to expand the lockdowns will be the first with their hands out looking for federal financial relief when they cannot balance their mandate-induced state budgets?
Some may posit that as a nation we underreacted to the flu of 2017-18 and that we should have adopted the same shutdown mandates that are in place today. But I don’t think so. My sense is that the consensus will grow that the massive economic cost of today’s shutdown has gone too far and that the cure will prove more harmful than the disease itself. We will learn that no country can shut down its economy without traumatic negative consequences.
The way forward is now to emulate Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who is leading the charge to open his state’s economy. Yes, let’s reopen wisely and with a plan for a gradual weaning of social distancing and the integration of more testing. Clearly, it is now time to replace government mandates with individual initiative, judgment and responsibility as a way for Americans to take back control of their lives. Instead of just surviving the virus, it is now time to beat the virus and to win the war.
Our country will have many questions to answer when this pandemic ends. Although much of the focus for the past month has been on government action and control, we are overdue to return to the traditional American culture of individualism. In his recent piece, “The age of coddling is over,” New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to the tide of “safetyism” that has crept into American society and has left us dangerously unprepared to handle a crisis like COVID-19. He writes that the culture of coddling, with roots starting with our parenting, has been a “disaster.”
“This overprotective impulse,” he adds, “doesn’t shelter people from fear: it makes them unprepared to deal with the fear that inevitably comes” and the coronavirus “is another reminder that hardship is woven into the warp and woof existence. Training a young person is training her or him to master hardship, to endure suffering and, by building something new from the wreckage, redeem it.”
The sooner our business and community leaders, our parents and teachers, and all of us take these ideas to heart, the more successful our nation will be to beat this pandemic as well as the next pandemics to follow.
Jim Ryan Jr. is president of Ryco Management LLC. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.
Jim, I’m surprised at your thinking on this. Yes we have had strong flu seasons but the population had the ability to vaccinate and shelter themselves from the disease. That worked in most but not all circumstances. In addition, the flu season extends over a six month period as the disease moves across the country, look at what Covid did in just 4 weeks! We knew very little about COVID-19, had no obvious defense, but we knew from China and Europe that it spread quickly and killed.
Untouched, there were valid projection that the US could see several million deaths. The objective in the quarantine was two fold: minimize deaths and keep the disease from overwhelming the Health care system. I would suggest that without the quarantine, both would have occurred so it’s not appropriate to compare the 60,000 deaths from a flu season to 60,000(and counting) from Covid 19.
Not every hospital in this country was overwhelmed like we saw in NYC, thank god. But imagine if they were. We need to thank every first responder and Healthcare worker who put their lives on the line knowing that in 4 weeks they could be dead. Many did die.
The country should begin to get back to normal sometime, in the right way. But if you think you can trust everyone to do the right thing, it’s never going to happen. Opening in the wrong way, at the wrong time and if the infections and deaths start to climb, it will really set the recovery back.
Hopefully we will be able to discuss soon on the golf course! Yes – the case may be made that COVID is going to be somewhat worse in terms of mortality – but it does not look to be the case for hospitalizations given that the Flu hospitalizations are 9x higher at this point comparing the two seasons. What I am trying to highlight is that both the flu and COVID 19 have caused similar amounts of trouble – but the hype has been altogether different for each. The scary part of the flu was that even with a vaccine – there were over 60,000 deaths and 800,000 hospitalizations.
I am also not arguing against the sheltering to flatten the curve – as a means to give us time to study the virus and to ensure we did not overwhelm hospitals. So – mission accomplished. But look at the collateral damage against hospitals – that have been operating well below full capacity around the country and creating huge losses. Point is that we achieved our objective – flattened the curve – so now it is time to reopen before we blow a hole in the economy that we will not easily recover from. The massive wealth loss and unemployment over just a short period of time shows us that more of the same is unsustainable. And if we could endure the flu outbreak with hardly a blink of an eye – clearly we can do the same with COVID 19. But first we must stop the excessive and continuous scare tactic – from the press and form government. We did not scare ourselves into panic for the flu so let’s not continue do the same for COVID 19.
I would bet that the wealth loss is mainly from the upper middle class because the rich are continuing to earn tons of money and, yes, the poor, but I don’t think the poor would say the economy was good before the pandemic. If the economy had been good for everyone, we would have had more people with more savings to tide them over. As it was, many people were surviving paycheck to paycheck. I laugh at the thinking of people who want business to come back fully now that we’d be going back to a great economy. We didn’t have a great economy for most people.
So why don’t we take this time to move toward a better economy for everyone and make sure that when we encounter another pandemic, which is likely probable, everyone is in a better position to deal with it. Let’s also think about bringing manufacturing back to this country so we don’t have to rely on other countries for supplies. How embarrassing for this country?
Continue thinking that the flu and the corona virus are similar. But before you say it again, please research the effects of flu and corona virus on the future effects on the health care system and economy. Of course, we don’t know the full effects of this current virus yet. Have you thought of how we deal with the young people who have the virus but didn’t know it and were healthy enough to fight to avoid lung problems but now are having strokes? What about those who have lung, liver, kidney, heart, and other brain problems because of the virus? We don’t know long term effects of the virus yet.
There’s a really simple test of people’s statements on when things should re-open: ask not what they say but what they’re ***actually willing to do.*** I’m really tired of hearing about “personal responsibility” or “we need to teach people to face risk” from those who aren’t out, say, riding the city buses or delivering packages or occupying any of those front-line low-paying positions where there are ***actual consequences*** to their words.
I’m not saying the writer of the article is in that camp, but, seriously, Jim, how comfortable are ***you*** riding a city bus, even with a mask? Because that’s the proof of the pudding — whether “sacrifice” means something ***others*** do or whether you (we) are willing to do it ourselves. “Training a young person is training her or him to master hardship, to endure suffering and, by building something new from the wreckage, redeem it,” says David Brooks; well, are you willing to train that way or is it good only for others but not for you? And when I say “you” I don’t mean Jim particularly, but rather anyone who makes those kinds of statements.
I’m trained as a molecular biologist so there are lots of reasons I could cite for why I disagree with the article; but it doesn’t matter, because the simple truth is I won’t argue for something I’m myself terrified to do. And the first question to ask when you hear someone making those arguments is: “are you making them from safe isolation because you’re affluent enough to be able to work from home? Or are you out riding the buses like the people that those statements throws into the front-lines?”
I’m squarely in the at-risk demographic. It’s difficult for me to agree with Mr. Ryan’s rather aggressive stance. He has a political agenda. That said, even if some of what he posts is valid, there is a tendency to forget the early days of the outbreak. When N.Y. City hospitals were overwhelmed. There was no room to put the people who passed away or accommodate gravely ill individuals rushed to E.R.’s throughout the city. Early on, the outbreak in Westchester County, where dozens of people became sick from a single exposure, seemed to be an indicator of how contagious the virus was. Those events informed the decision making of the Governor to act to protect as many New Yorkers as possible. There were insufficient ventilators to meet demand, and hospitals were running out of PPE for their first responders. Remember that projections by all credible academic and medical officials forecast extremely high cases of infections and deaths.
Learning what was being reported by health officials in Europe, especially Italy, government officials in the U.S. expected the disastrous illness would overtake our country. In hindsight, it appears that N.Y. City was the epicenter. Now their experience could be considered the exception rather than the rule. But it’s critical to remember that at the time, no one knew what the mode of transmission was, what the incubation period was, or how long the virus lasted in the environment. There are many things we still don’t know about this brand new disease. For the seasonal flu that continues to kill many compromised people, we at least have a flu shot that many people don’t take advantage of. We have treatments to minimize fatalities. With COVID-19, there are still too many unknowns to allow a quick and universal reopening of the economy. Governor Cuomo has empaneled regional working groups to advise on well planned and gradual comeback of businesses. There will be close monitoring to ensure that any new increases in illness can be effectively managed. The economy is important, but we need healthy people to participate in the reopening.
Interesting perspective, but you totally discredited yourself in declaring we should “emulate Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp”. This was the same governor who, months into the global spread of COVID-19 and well after NYS went into “PAUSE”, declared in a public statement that he “only just learned that people can carry and transmit COVID-19 without showing symptoms”. That you are referring to an elected leader this ill-informed as someone we should “emulate” is dangerous. We should be following facts, data, and have wide-spread testing. It is too early to know the infection or death rate if we don’t have adequate testing to backup these statistics!
I totally agree that misguided parenting has created coddled individuals, believing they have the right to do anything because Mom and Dad have thought they were so cute and could do no wrong. It’s extremely sad.
That said, I’m not sure that a lot of Americans have individual initiative, judgment and responsibility because they have not been allowed to face obstacles and figure out how to deal with them. There is so much of a push for freedom that is only one way — the freedom of a person to do what they want without regard for how they may be hampering the freedom of others. We have mainly forgotten that we only have pseudo-freedom if we don’t think about how our actions affect others and modify as needed. If you want complete freedom to do whatever you want, live alone on an island or the desert.
As far as sheltering in place and continued precautions, I believe that we know so little about the corona virus and its possible future effects. We have 30 and 40 year olds having major strokes — they didn’t have symptoms of having the virus but they test positive when they wind up in the hospital severely debilitated. Current thought is the individual was healthy enough not to have lung problems but the body’s response to fighting the virus caused clots. And there are other heart, kidney, liver and brain problems that have cropped up. Maybe instead of saying let’s act like we do with the yearly flu, we need to look at the seriousness of viruses and act accordingly because more will be coming our way and a virus never goes away completely. We need a worldwide effort of finding a way to eradicate or deal with viruses and a more serious approach to the yearly flu.