Politics & Policy

The Price of Unrealistic Optimism

A visitor passes a coronavirus warning during Memorial Day weekend in Bethany Beach, Del., May 24, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Normalcy bias can be a powerful force in human thinking, but how long into a crisis before it becomes inexcusable?

This week, the United States is likely to see the 200,000th American die because of SARS-CoV-2, more commonly called the coronavirus.

On July 17, shortly before I departed for a week to visit family, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 passed 140,000. The final Morning Jolt before the break was titled “We Have to Confront Reality” and concluded, “Week by week, month by month, it became clear that this pandemic is different from all [previous pandemics in recent decades], and the most serious contagious threat to our health that we have seen since the influenza pandemic of 1918.” I asked, “What do you have to see to conclude that it’s not a hoax, that the CDC and doctors are not lying, and that the threat this virus presents is not overhyped?”

Quite a few readers were displeased with my tone and perspective on the pandemic and let me have it in the comments section. “Glad to read you’ll be gone next week. Please consider adding a week or two!!” “I see your pendulum has swung back to really skeerd, Mr. Geraghty. Take a breath.” “Lighten up, Francis, and let’s just all get on with life.” “You sound like Chicken Little, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling.’ The Pandemic did not turn out to be anywhere near as cataclysmic as first predicted. . . . I wouldn’t want you near me in a real disaster. You would be of no help and someone would have to spend valuable time comforting you from the boogeyman.” “Jim has been overly panicky about the Wuhan flu.”

You could also find commenters insisting that “statistically, historically, and realistically, the Wuhan coronavirus isn’t that big a deal!” or that “this was never anything to be terribly concerned about,” or that “we’re near or at herd immunity.”

That was roughly eight weeks and 60,000 dead Americans ago. By the measuring sticks of Worldometers or Johns Hopkins or the CDC, the United States is knocking at the door of 200,000 dead from the coronavirus.

The final death toll for the 9/11 attacks was 2,996, meaning that just since mid July, the United States has suffered a virus death toll that is roughly equivalent to 20 9/11s. We have suffered a loss of life that is roughly equivalent of almost 67 9/11s since the first death of this pandemic. It is reasonable to wonder whether the death toll will reach 300,000 Americans by the end of the year.

At any given point during this pandemic, you can find someone — sometimes anonymous, sometimes identified — insisting that herd immunity was just around the corner or “the outbreak is gone in most places or on the way out.” But so far, the virus has not gone away. It is not now gone or, as far as we can tell, “on the way out.”

Again . . . roughly 60,000 dead Americans in two months, roughly 200,000 since February.

The problem in this coronavirus pandemic has not been that I was too pessimistic, or too gloomy, or too “scared” in my assessments of the risk, of the danger, and the potential toll. (What I write doesn’t affect all that much, in the grand scheme of things.) Nor has the problem really been that any other writer or health official has been too pessimistic or overstated the threat.

No, the primary problem in this coronavirus has been that many, many Americans, both in government and outside of government, insisted it wouldn’t be that bad and thus underestimated the risk to themselves and others. They insisted that it was only a little worse than the flu, or comparable to the flu, or even less serious or “less deadly than the flu.” They insisted that it was only dangerous to the elderly. They insisted that social distancing was a joke and that masks didn’t help. They believed they could go to parties and not be at risk. And perhaps in some cases, they were indeed at minimal risk for serious health effects — but not everyone else they came in contact with had the same assurances.

We were also bedeviled by governors and state authorities who sent those recovering but still contagious into nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. We were hindered by governors and mayors who insisted that any public gathering was dangerous and needed to be legally banned, except for George Floyd protests. We were saddled with the burden of fellow citizens who seem to think wearing the mask below their noses is good enough.

No doubt, right about now, someone is jumping up out of their chair and insisting that the numbers from Worldometers or Johns Hopkins or the CDC have to be an overcount — that some people’s deaths were attributed to the coronavirus when any fair-minded observer would conclude that the cause of death was something else. George Floyd tested positive for the coronavirus, but the virus wasn’t what killed him. This is why the CDC considers “provisional” cases. There are no doubt going to be errors in the data, errors that responsible public-health officials will attempt to correct. This is what happened in the infamous example of a man who died in a motorcycle accident but tested positive for coronavirus in the autopsy.

But just how many of the roughly 200,000 can one reasonably think are miscategorized motorcycle accidents or other factors? One percent? Five percent? Ten percent?

Is our national calamity really that much better if the death toll is “only” 180,000?

Yes, a sizable portion of those who have died were senior citizens, and some were probably near the end of their natural life. Perhaps any significant health issue would have led to their death if the coronavirus hadn’t come along. But elderly lives are still lives. And there’s something gruesome and callous about a Logan’s Run–esque dismissal of the deaths of tens of thousands of America’s elderly. (A shrug and declaration that “these people were going to die soon anyway” cannot be, by any stretch of the imagination, consistent with a pro-life philosophy.) Roughly 57 percent of America’s deaths are among those ages 75 or older. That still leaves 43 percent of an abominably large number!

For what it’s worth, the overall excess mortality rate in the United States appeared to surpass 200,000 in mid August. Those aren’t all deaths caused by the coronavirus, but a sizable portion are probably driven by or related to the pandemic in some way — say, if someone hesitates to go to a hospital for fear of catching the virus, and then a short time later succumbs to a heart attack or stroke.

And this is just discussing the deaths. Some people who are infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic, some people get the virus and fully recover, and some people have some serious lingering issues, particularly respiratory. Because this virus is new, we just don’t know why it affects some people for so long. This virus can hurt you very badly even if it doesn’t kill you.

So many people just didn’t want to hear news this grim, and because of this, they insisted it could not be true.

We as a country couldn’t have prevented this, but we could have mitigated this. But any successful mitigation would have required us to be psychologically prepared to grapple with the worst-case scenario instead of retreating into denial. Normalcy bias can be a powerful force in human thinking, but how long into a crisis does it start to become inexcusable? How long should it have taken Americans, from the top to the bottom, to realize that it was not going to take a mere “two weeks to bend the curve” and that a return to normal was not just around the corner?

This is the bad scenario that up until this year sounded like science fiction and kept public-health officials awake at night. The pessimists were right, and the optimists were wrong.

The president was wrong all the times he said, “We have it totally under control,” or “We pretty much shut it down.” He led Americans astray when he declared, “The virus that we’re talking about having to do, a lot of people think that goes away in April, with the heat, as the heat comes in, typically that will go away in April.” His repeated assertions that “it will go away” were at best extraordinarily misleading, as he never added, “sometime after August.”

The vice president was wrong when he said, on April 22, “By early June, we could be at a place where this coronavirus epidemic is largely in the past.”

Dr. Scott Atlas — now an adviser to the White House on the pandemic — was wrong when he wrote on March 26, “This virus could cause about 10,000 deaths in the United States overall, overall, a number that would not be extraordinary news in the total of flu-like deaths every season.” William Bennett and Seth Leibson were wrong when they asserted in mid April, “It appears that the death toll in America from coronavirus will end up looking a lot like the annual fatality numbers from the flu.” Stanford Professor of Biophysics Michael Levitt was wrong when he predicted, on July 25, “US COVID19 will be done in 4 weeks with a total reported death below 170,000.”

When National Review’s biggest fan, American Greatness contributor Julie Kelly, asked on April 21, “Would 18,000 fatalities — nearly all elderly or sick people, sadly — from COVID over a 2-month period be a national crisis?” she was raising the bar for what constitutes a national crisis to ludicrous heights. Earlier that month, Kelly denounced U.S. surgeon general Jerome Adams, Dr. Deborah Birx, and Dr. Anthony Fauci as fear-mongers and noted that “Fauci admitted earlier this week that the total death count could be closer to 60,000 because of successful mitigation measures.”

Our country’s experiencing 60,000 deaths looks like a pleasantly mild sum from the perspective of today.

People have been telling you the pandemic is almost gone for five months now. They will insist that while all of those past assessments have been wrong, now they’re certain that within a matter of weeks cases will dwindle down to almost none.

And who knows, maybe this time the optimistic assessments and predictions will prove right. This has been an unpredictable virus, and random chance plays a big factor. Maybe by October or November, new cases will decline dramatically. Previous wrong predictions and assessments of herd immunity don’t mean that herd immunity will never come. The number of reported new cases is indeed declining in most states.

But for months now, people you trusted have told you this pandemic wasn’t going to be that bad, and that the end was just around the corner. They didn’t have any special insight or analytical knowledge or secret intelligence data. They were just hoping the pandemic wouldn’t be that bad, wish-casting, seeing what they wanted to see, and they passed it along to you as near-certitude. You would have been better off consulting a Magic Eight Ball.

Do you want to make decisions that could have serious consequences for your health, and the health of your loved ones, based upon the assumption that the threat is gone or almost gone? Does the experience of the past year suggest you should plan for the best-case scenario’s coming to pass?

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