Coronavirus: Pandemic or Panic?

Epistemic status: Bro, I'm not an expert.

I have several spurious thoughts at this point on Coronavirus. Here they are:
Where we're at as of today

-Regardless of whether Coronavirus kills many or kills few the same people will claim it proves we overreacted/underreacted.

If Coronavirus kills many, interventionists will claim it proves we didn't do enough, and non-interventionists will say it proves that what we did didn't work.

If Coronavirus kills few, interventionists will claim it proves we stopped it, and non-interventionists will claim it proves it was nothing after all.

None of them are right, but none of them will see it. The sad truth is that whatever happens, the experiment will be inconclusive - at least from a surface perspective. Later on, higher resolution data will come out and be argued about for years.

-Tyler Cowen writes about two ways to think about Coronavirus.

Base Rate thinking is tried and true. Meta-rationality is about knowing what we don't know and therefore putting a lot of stock on base rates. This is the most important lesson to learn from Superforcasters. The base rate for recent global pandemics like SARS and Ebola is that they fizzled out. Our track record for predicting large important events is abysmal. People are too excited to be prophets of catastrophe, especially since we rarely penalize false predictions after the fact.

Exponential Growth Thinking is not concerned with current rates of contraction or death, but the potential for them to grow very quickly. Much like if I double $1 many times it becomes $1 million very quickly, Coronavirus has the chance of hopping on Moore's Law and multiplying very very quickly.

Which view is right? Many dubious hysterias were based on projecting from exponential growth, famously Malthusianism, but base rates have to be wrong at least sometimes. I think the proper Beysian procedure is to start out a strong base-rater and become more and more of a growther each day that Coronavirus spreads.

-"It's wild to see polarization on Coronavirus. One group's panic seems to be driving another's nonchalance and vice versa. While there is definitely a political overlay, it seems to be something deeper for most people: An instinctive belief that the world is hard to wake up from sleepwalking, or that the world is full of dumb panic." -Michael Dougherty

- It's easy to accuse base raters of being sleepwalkers, or Growthers of being stupid panic-ers. Like many issues, there's a dumb side and a smart side within each side. We should be wary of feeds that zoom us in on the dumb people on the other side.

-The most credible concern is tail-risk. My estimate of whether Coronavirus will kill 100,000 people in 1 year can be rounded up to 50%. But if we lose that coin flip, my best estimate it will kill 1,000,000 people can be rounded to 50%. And if we lose that one then there's 50% it will end up killing 10,000,000.

In other words, the greater cost of letting it take 100,000 lives is not the 100,000 lives, but the fact that we've let it grown to the point where it could easily take 1 or 10 million.

-Jacob Falkovich, a blogger I like a lot, is an exponential growth thinker and is advising people take action by stocking food, water, and oxygen saturation monitors. Read Scott Alexander on the topic of preparation too. 2 weeks of extra supplies that you'll use anyway only costs extra space in the long run.

- The more we're underestimating the number of infections the more we're overestimating the mortality rate. If twice as many people have it as we think, the mortality is half what we think it is. Counter-intuitively, it might be a good thing if we're underestimating the current number of infections, especially if we expect many more future infections.

-1% chance of death is not low!

- Much of the current skepticism is fueled by patterns of fear-mongering. Circulating memes like the one below are dubious - they don't even use the right years, but they resonate because the public has heard wolf cried so many times.

-It might seem like we've already let the topic become political, but it doesn't break down neatly into standard partisan politics. FiveThirtyEight cites evidence that right-wingers are more likely to downplay the virus than leftists, but they conclude that it's not a very big effect and it can be attributed to regional demographics.

Nonetheless, it seems like people are quickly choosing "sides" of the issue even if those sides don't carve up neatly between left and right. It seems like Americans are addicted to running the war app in their brains regardless of the issue or stakes.

-Some people seem to be working very hard to make the issue political. People like Paul Krugman are calling it Trumpvirus, some people are calling non-believers racist because they saw someone somewhere do something on the internet, even The World Health Organization is inviting anti-woke backlash.

And then Trump Jr. says things like, "for Democrats to try to take a pandemic and seemingly hope that it comes here and kills millions of people so that they could end Donald Trump's streak of winning is a new level of sickness." 

I'd just say, beware the Al Gore effect. Marking a side of the issue with your side's political stamp is likely to be counter-productive.

- I don't know how to assess Trump's response to the virus. He signed an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill. His recent tweets on the subject can be interpreted along the lines of "stay calm" or trivialization depending on which team you're on.

Some people claim the Trump administration defunded the Center for Disease Control, but that turns out to be factually inaccurate. He proposed cuts but they haven't been enacted. Even if they were, Coronavirus wouldn't prove it was a mistake any more than 9/11 proved we didn't spend enough on defense. There is some optimum number of dollars to give the CDC and Coronavirus doesn't prove we're above or below it.

-"Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after will seem inadequate" -M. Leavitt, DHHS


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


  1. Good summary. I think I'm more concerned than many people in my circle, and have had some success increasing the volume of the alarm bell by just pushing the numbers: if the death rate is "only" 1%, it still kills > 1 million people in US or > 10 million people globally, if a large fraction gets infected. That's a catastrophe we should all care to avoid!

  2. (Also, typo: I guess the second instance of "If Coronavirus kills many," should be "few", no? You can delete this comment after checking. 🙂)