Let’s start with some facts.
COVID-19 is killing a lot of people. From the announcement of the first confirmed U.S. case on January 20 to April 16, it has killed nearly 34,000 Americans. (I’ll ignore claims that number is inflated as well as more persuasive arguments that it’s an undercount.)
My long-time friend Bill Bennett, the former secretary of education, recently appeared on Fox News (where we are both contributors) to “put the data in perspective,” as one of the hosts put it.
The upshot of Bennett’s position is that the COVID-19 threat has been wildly exaggerated from the outset. Contrary to every dictionary I can find, he says COVID-19 is not a pandemic, “but we do have panic and pandemonium as a result of the hype of this. And it’s really unfortunate. Look at the facts.”
Bennett’s primary “fact” is that current projections hold that roughly 60,000 Americans will die from COVID-19 (though he thinks it will be less than that). “We’re going to have fewer fatalities from this than from the flu,” he said. “For this, we scared the hell out of the American people” and wrecked the economy.
Here’s the first problem: These projections of COVID-19 deaths take into account the social-distancing practices we’ve enacted — and they curb the rate of new infections. If we hadn’t started taking precautions, those estimates would be (and were) vastly higher. Thus, Bennett botches the concept of causality. It’s like yelling at firemen for all the water damage to your house since all that burned up was a tiny part of your kitchen, without acknowledging that if the firefighters hadn’t shown up, the whole house would have burned down.
Over the 87 days from the announcement of the first U.S. case to this writing on April 16, COVID-19 has killed, on average, 391 Americans per day. If you annualized that you’d get 142,644 deaths, more than double the estimated 61,000 people who died from the flu during the 2017–2018 flu season that Bennett cited. But again, that’s misleading, because if left unchecked, the rate of COVID-19 infection would be exponential.
The New Atlantis has a helpful chart showing “reported new deaths weekly.” The COVID-19 line starts on February 17, and almost instantly soars past the flu — as well as car crashes and, soon thereafter, cancer. From April 6 to April 12, COVID-19 was the second-leading cause of death in the U.S., killing 12,392 to heart disease’s 12,626. Those numbers reflect the measures Bennett impugns as, pardon the term, overkill.
To be fair, Bennett doesn’t propose that we should have done nothing. He suggests we should have just protected the vulnerable population and kept the economy going. I share his concern about the economy, but Sweden has tried something similar, and its death toll is soaring, and its economy is crashing, anyway.
What bothers me more about Bennett’s argument isn’t his mischievous epidemiological speculation but his theory of why the country is responding to the pandemic the way it is. He argues on TV and in writing that America has been frightened into an unnecessary overreaction by the media and the Left. He wants Americans to man up and respond with the sort of courage we showed after the 9/11 attacks, rather than giving in to the “paranoid style in American politics.”
That phrase comes from historian Richard Hofstadter, and Bennett mangles its meaning. The “paranoid style” in Hofstadter’s telling, is the populist tendency to see elites treasonously conspiring against the common good. Bennett doesn’t ascribe sinister motives to public-health “experts” — the scare quotes are his — but his insistence that they aren’t to be trusted lends aid and comfort to the kind of conspiracy-mongering Hofstadter had in mind. Indeed, Bennett’s odd refusal to place any blame on Donald Trump for the policies of his administration only fuels the idea that the president is being misled by sinister forces — something one hears constantly from certain quarters of the right.
More importantly, the idea that Americans are panicky fraidy-cats strikes me as grossly unfair. Where is the evidence? I see it nowhere in my daily life or in the inspiring stories of courageous health workers and generous citizens. Nor is there much evidence of it in polls, which show overwhelming support for social-distancing policies.
Bennett is a famous pro-lifer who sincerely wants to protect the vulnerable unborn. It seems to me the vulnerable born deserve adequate protection too, and the sacrifices Americans are making in that effort aren’t fueled by panic or cowardice, but by heroism.
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