Tom Friedman knows nothing, please fire him

Referring to an opinion piece in the NYT from Tom Friedman:

“Either we let many of us get the coronavirus, recover and get back to work — while doing our utmost to protect those most vulnerable to being killed by it. Or, we shut down for months to try to save everyone everywhere from this virus — no matter their risk profile — and kill many people by other means, kill our economy and maybe kill our future.”

I mean, really? Does Mr. Friedman not understand that most deaths from Covid19 will occur because the health care system just does not have the capacity to see the high number of patients with serious disease that will appear if we do nothing?

The goal is not to “save everyone, everywhere.” People are going to die. Actually, they already have. The goal is to bring the rate that people with serious disease appear at hospitals to a manageable level and to buy us time to come up with effective treatments and, possibly, an effective vaccine.  We need to slow down transmission because a lack of ICU beds, ventilators and people to work them will be a major determinant of mortality in people with severe symptoms of disease.

“That huge range markedly affects how severe the pandemic is and what should be done. A population-wide case fatality rate of 0.05% is lower than seasonal influenza. If that is the true rate, locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.”

This is just ridiculous. There is a vaccine for influenza and most people have at least partial immunity to it, so that fewer people become infected. 99.99999% of humanity has exactly zero immunity to Covid19 so that even if the case fatality rate is the same as influenza, there will be potentially more infections. Small percentages of big numbers are still big numbers.

The article he refers to even tries to make a bizarre argument that because there are other coronviruses out there that also cause death, then we should not be overly concerned with this one. Again, the other coronaviruses out there (many of which cause the common cold) have been around for quite some time. Many people have developed some level of immunity to many of them (correct me if I am wrong here) which reduces the total number of people who become infected yearly.

We certainly have to weigh out the costs and benefits of any intervention. In this case, many people will lose their livelihoods, people will turn to alcohol and drugs, there will be financial meltdowns and suicides. This must be discussed.

However, we can’t blind ourselves to the incredible human cost of a new pathogen that humanity has no immunity to, that, even if that pathogen has characteristics of pathogens we are commonly faced with. We can’t say, “saving lives is too expensive” when the financial cost of breaking our health care system is also incredibly expensive.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.
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