How Mass Hysteria Is Making Coronavirus Worse Than It Actually Is
The fear pandemic about the coronavirus is driving market sell-offs, stockpiling of provisions and other doomsday-is-here behaviors around the globe. During mass hysterias, the human mind goes on witch hunts for information that fits the narrative. At a time when sanity and sanitation masks are in short supply, here are some analyses that don’t fit the apocalyptic mainstream media narrative.
Figure 1 is a histogram chart of new deaths reported each day attributed to SARS-CoV2 from China and around the world. The quality of the data—such as whether the diagnosis was serologically confirmed by the latest standards—cannot be ascertained. For instance, why the 121 new deaths in China reported on February 14 only increased the cumulative tally of China deaths from 1,368 to 1,381 is unclear. That said, I am simply charting the source data as supplied by the World Health Organization (WHO) on their daily situation report. I plotted the data myself because I couldn’t find anything similar on the internet.
The overall longitudinal trends of global SARS-CoV2 deaths reported each day over the past three weeks are inconsistent with the story of a global doomsday scenario. The absolute numbers remain low, both in China and ex-China. Also keep in mind that the data reflects some degree of search bias—the increasing spread of serological test kits for SARS-CoV2 (which remain limited) around the world. The longitudinal trends reflected in Figure 1 could also be interpreted as relatively normal for this time of year during a typical flu season, which would be winding down in the coming weeks.
This alternative interpretation of the WHO data is also supported by Figure 2 above, a plot of the incremental change in global death rate attributed to SARS-CoV2 each day from China and around the world. The source data is the same as for Figure 1: WHO’s daily situation report. Please note that, for the reason cited in Figure 1, the data point for February 14 is a retrofitted number from February 15. Once again, I plotted the data myself because I couldn’t find anything similar on the internet. And once again, with all due caveats, this plot is inconsistent with the narrative of a global doomsday scenario and is more consistent with a normal flu season about this time of year.
It’s worth providing an alternative explanation for some of the commonly cited analyses that are fomenting mass hysteria.
Comparing the 2 percent so-called case fatality rate of SARS-CoV2 with the widely reported 0.1 percent case fatality rate of the seasonal flu is like comparing apples to orangutans. In the latter case, the study’s authors note that the denominator (and numerator) value includes estimated presumed mild cases that didn’t seek medical attention, which is a vast number. In the former case, the denominator reflects only those that are test-confirmed, presumably because most of them were sick enough to warrant being tested in the first place (keep in mind that test kits are in very limited supply).
In all likelihood, however, given the one-off infections that are being detected in disparate locations, thousands if not millions have already had mild or asymptomatic SARS-CoV2. If an estimate of untested cases had been included in the denominator (and numerator)—as had been done in the case fatality rate for seasonal flu, the case fatality rate of SARS-CoV2 would probably be far below the reported 2 percent. The same selection bias likely skews the widely reported case fatality rates of SARS-CoV1 (9.6 percent) and MERS (36 percent).
Keep in mind that terms like SARS and MERS are tautologically self-referential. They are branded as memes through the process of taking a group of patients who are unfortunately close to dying from a viral respiratory infection, then measuring the death rate among those close to dying. Though it’s hardly the ideal comparison, the analogous exercise would be taking the estimated 12,000 to 79,000 deaths from the annual seasonal flu in America then dividing by the 140,000 and 960,000 hospitalizations each year from the seasonal flu. The median case of these numbers would yield a case fatality rate of about 10 percent for the seasonal flu. Fortunately, the public, scientists and the CDC mentally account for the true flu prevalence, including mild cases, to be between 9.3 million to 49 million per year, which dramatically deflates the case fatality rate for the seasonal flu by 50 fold.
You can run through the same mental exercise to consider an independent conclusion on one of the latest memes that went viral: the 14.8 percent case fatality rate of patients aged 80 or higher who have been diagnosed with SARS-CoV2. Taken in isolation, that sounds like a scary number, but let’s unpack that concern a bit. No doubt, the fatality risk among that age group is far higher for both SARS-CoV2 and run-of-the-mill seasonal flus; they should take extra precaution at all times. That said, what we don’t know is the prevalence of mild cases of SARS-CoV2 and seasonal flus among this population that didn’t get tested or hospitalized, so direct comparisons about relative deadliness are difficult and speculative.
Another concern circulating on social media right now comes out of the fact that 705 people associated with the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess, which embarked on January 20, have been confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus and seven people have died. Some have argued that this represents a “true” 1 percent case fatality rate of SARS-CoV2.
Upon closer examination, a lot of the details about the demography and the deaths in the Diamond Princess cases have remained somewhat fuzzy. At the very least, it should be noted that most of the deaths so far have been among people in their 80s. It should also be noted that the annual death rate of an average person in their 80s is about 10 percent. That means that if you were to quarantine any random group of 705 people in their 80s, about seven of them would have passed away by day 41, which today is the number of days that has passed since January 20. To repeat, the actual demographic details about the 705 confirmed cases from the Diamond Princess remain unknown.
Also unknown are the demographic details of the rest of the original 3,711 people quarantined from the Diamond Princess. Have any of the non-positive people died during the 41 days? Considering the intense media scrutiny, it is strange that no other deaths have been reported from the total cohort. It’s possible that one of the safest cohorts to have been part of in the world during the past 41 days was this group of 3,711: The extra attention paid to them by the medical system may actually be saving them from dying from non-coronavirus-related illnesses such as heart attacks.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the vast number of people around the world who have been caught up in the mass hysteria. Although stress is highly contagious and contributes to increased morbidity and mortality, including during fear pandemics, the excess deaths caused by the panic are not tracked by the CDC or WHO. Nor are the potential deaths resulting from the disruptions caused by the extraordinary measures taken by people and governments around the world. Thus, it is impossible to ascertain the net difference of lives saved or lost by these extraordinary measures precipitated by the global panic.
There are a couple of other cohorts I am following. One is Singapore, a developed nation with advanced governance. So far, none of the 106 diagnosed with SARS-CoV2 have died. The other is a group of 126 predominantly German nationals who had stayed in Hubei Province and were evacuated to Frankfurt on February 1. Ten people who displayed respiratory symptoms were all proven to be SARS-CoV2 negative. Of the remaining 116 people who never displayed respiratory symptoms, two were proven to be SARS-CoV2 positive. One might intuit that the global background prevalence rate of people who get SARS-CoV2 and never get sick may turn out to be far larger than anyone appreciates at the moment.
I know none of these analyses will satisfy most of those who have bought into the mass hysteria. Where I live, in the Bay Area, some people are freaking out about the 2 percent case fatality rate (which understates the thousands if not millions of undiagnosed mild cases). Some are afraid of the thousands if not millions of undiagnosed mild cases. Some are multiplying these numbers and are currently cleaning out the shelves at Costco.
Let’s take a deep breath and take a bird’s-eye view. Mass hysteria is an evolutionary feature, not a bug. Selection didn’t want humans to take their time to contemplate and weigh the evidence during traumatic situations. If anything, independent thinking is subverted in favor of hypnotic groupthink and confirmation bias: People will relentlessly and even delusionally mine for information that fits their fearful narrative—a condition known as folie à plusieurs [“madness of several”]. In the context of race-to-the-bottom fear-mongering and easily subverted public consciousness, however, mass hysterias can behave maladaptively, especially where there is principal-agent risk and lack of stewardship. The coronavirus memes are the virus. Just as you can’t necessarily change how long a cold lasts by taking antibiotics or Tamiflu, these mass hysterias unfortunately probably have to run their natural course before fading away.
What happens from here is hard to predict. My guess is that the case counts will peak and be revised downward after the mass hysteria subsides. That’s what happened after the 2002 to 2003 SARS-CoV1 mini-pandemic—a self-defeating oxymoron—when widespread fear engulfed humanity, leading to doomsday-is-here behaviors. On May 7, 2003, the CDC reported a total of 328 SARS cases in the U.S., which fit the ongoing panic narrative at the time. By July 15, the CDC reported a total of 418 cases. In the cold light of day after the mass hysteria ended, the CDC quietly retreated the final official tally to eight serologically confirmed cases of SARS-CoV1 in the United States and no deaths. Keep in mind that for eight people to have a virus in a country as large as America, there were probably thousands if not millions who had mild or asymptomatic infections.
What is more predictable is that this type of mass hysteria will recur every few years. So far, we have not witnessed fear pandemics recurring in consecutive years, possibly because exposure to the fear provides some immunity to the fear year-over-year. However, given the cadence of mass hysterias about deadly panics that we have seen over the past 25 years since the birth of the internet, it is unlikely that the inoculation will last much beyond a year and the protection from panic will require exposure to a booster dose in the not-too-distant future.