The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Friday, March 13, 2020


Eleven years ago, the H1N1 pandemic swept the globe. According to the CDC and WHO, among others, there were over 762 million cases of H1N1 reported in 214 countries worldwide. There were 284,000 deaths associated with H1N1. The CDC estimates "between 34 million and 67 million cases of 2009 H1N1 [in the United States] occurred between April and November 14, 2009. ... CDC estimated that between about 7,070 and 13,930 2009 H1N1-related deaths occurred between April and November 14, 2009."

Ponder the numbers in the first paragraph for a moment. Then consider that currently, there have been no more than 2000 COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S with fewer than 40 deaths. Let's assume under-reporting by an order of magnitude. That would be 20,000 cases and 400 deaths at this time. Let's further assume the frightening prospect that even with all of the measures currently in place, those numbers will increase by two more orders of magnitude leading to 2 million cases and 40,000 deaths. That's very serious and tragic, but it remains well within the range of the H1N1 data for the United states.

Now, let's ponder the difference in media reporting, government response, political and public reaction, financial markets reaction, and overall societal upheaval between the serious events of 2009 and the equally serious portent of 2020. In 2009, H1N1 was a topic of reporting, but discussion was generally muted. There were no travel bans, little government action beyond the CDC and the healthcare community, no special legislation of any significance, few, if any, large event cancellations, and very little public hysteria. The administration at the time got almost no serious criticism for its handling of the H1N1 pandemic, even though it did little if anything beyond standard disease response. There were no cries for "more testing" and no political recriminations, although H1N1 was quite serious and deadly. There were few predictions that our hospitals would collapse under the weight on H1N1 patients (even though there were over 34,000,000 cases).

After-action data indicate that H1N1 was 0.2% lethal—in most cases killing the elderly with underlying health conditions. Because data are preliminary, it appears that COVID-19 is deadlier, with current morbidity estimates of about 2 percent. But as the number of reported cases rise (along with expected recoveries from those cases), the morbidity percentage is expected to drop (possibly significantly).

Some people argue that COVID-19 is somehow unique in the world of viruses, but there is little, if any, evidence to support that claim. Yes, COVID-19 is dangerous, yes, it spreads geometrically if left unchecked, yes, it will kill the elderly who have compromised immune or pulmonary systems, but that was equally true of H1N1.

One could argue, I suppose, that we've learned from H1N1 (along with other viruses) and have tuned our response accordingly. By implementing closures, travel bans, school closures, and other rational measures of social distancing (and self-quarantine), we can flatten the growth curve and avoid geometric spread. That's all good.

But why the difference in reporting and why ... the hysteria? COVID-19 like H1N1 is a serious threat, but it's not armageddon. If you listened to the mainstream media and more than a few politicians, you'd think that it was.