Coronavirus: How Bad is Bad?

I'm seeing a ton of tiptoeing around Coronavirus. Frightened of being proven wrong, few are willing to paint a clear picture of how good and bad it could be, or even what a good/bad outcome even looks like. I can listen to someone talk about it for hours and come away with absolutely no clue what they think best-case / worst-case scenarios are. I can't even ballpark most people's estimates based on the way they're talking about it.

I'm going to try to be different. After a lot of thinking, reading and introspection, here's how I assess the situation:

What does bad look like? And how likely is it?

I think about Coronavirus in categories of nothing, bad, really bad, really really bad, and catastrophic. I tend to think about it on a worldwide scale rather than a national level because I'm much more globalist than nationalist. To get an idea of U.S. estimates, I would take the following assessments and divide by about 10, since the U.S. is 5% of the world and Coronavirus is unlikely to touch some regions of the world.

So if I say 1 million is really bad on a worldwide scale, then 100,000 is probably really bad on a U.S. scale.

If the virus suddenly stopped right now, it would be nothing. A number that rounds to 10,000 deaths in this big world is a blip. It's how many people die from natural disasters in a year. By the end of the year we're guaranteed to be out of "nothing" territory. 

This scenario is basically impossible. Some scientist in a white lab coat comes out of the background and says, "this sounds crazy, but it just might work!" And it does!

When it hits 100,000 it'll be bad. At that point, it'll be much worse than the flu. It will still be a small fraction of the things that are trying to kill you. It probably won't kill anyone you know. It'll deserve to be forgotten about by everybody in several years.

If this happens it will probably come about because we highly overestimated the death rate. There are a lot of mild cases out there that we never tested because there were not symptoms to indicate we should. Those people got it and got better without anyone even knowing. 

80K-200K deaths is about the most positive scenario that I find plausible, not likely, but plausible.

Closer to 1M is really bad. Now we're in AIDS territory. It'll come close to cracking the top 10 killers for that year. Experts will see it when they look over the historical record, but if it makes the history textbook it'll be brief. It's one of a handful of events that define the 2020s. But keep in mind that 59 million people die worldwide every year.

This seems like the most likely scenario to me. This means the death rate is probably around 1% and we somewhat minimize the spread, but in the long run it inevitably keeps growing at a slower rate.

10M is really really bad. It'll be a top 3 killer of the year. It'll be responsible for 1 in every 6 deaths. This is historical and potentially the thing that defines the 2020s. It'll influence the mentality of everyone who lived through it for the rest of their lives.

I think this is in the range of plausible but not likely, probably even less likely than 100,000 deaths (bad).

100M is catastrophic. This is a moment. This will be one of the things that define the century the way World Wars and The Great Depression did. Look at your Facebook friends, four of them are dead now. The world will mourn over this thing for years.

This is more likely than the "nothing" estimate, but I highly doubt that we're going to see a catastrophic outcome.

Is this optimism?

If feels weird to call myself an optimist. I think there's a non-negligable probability that 10 million people are going to die. In some universal, broad way, this is very pessimistic.

But my sense is that this is optimistic compared to most smart people I follow. This means I can easily be accused of trivializing the problem. And yet my sense is that I'm still on the pessimistic side of the curve when it comes to average people I know.

In other words, on Twitter I find I'm more having to bite my tongue when people exaggerate the problem, whereas in real life I'm having to bite my tongue when people underestimate the problem.


This is one of a series of posts on Covid-19. Here are some others:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this; I was thinking of writing something similar and am glad to be scooped. :)

    I agree with your broad assessments and framing of the problem. One thing maybe I'd like to see (in a future post?) is how you might imagine us getting to some of the worse outcomes, so that we can avoid those things to the extent possible.

    For example, if I trust the current fatality rate estimates at 0.1-1%, 10M total fatalities seems like what we'd get automatically if we just let everyone get the disease (maybe worse, as hospital overcrowding may increase the total fatalities). If we can imagine how such a case might come about, it informs us as to what might be done to stop it.