The Fuzzy Math Behind COVID-19

| March 19, 2020 | 4 Comments

COVID-19Fear is the most powerful weapon in war. Hitler deployed buzz bombs against London in an attempt to destroy resolve and heighten fear during World War II. It nearly worked, if not for the even greater resolve of the British people and their leader, Winston Churchill.

Fear is such a powerful weapon that nations will go to great lengths in war to manipulate the news reaching the people. During World War I, only Spain had a reliable free press reporting the deadly flu ravaging troops and populations. No army wanted the world to know they were taking heavy causalities from what would later be called the Spanish Flu. Yet every nation, on the battlefield and at home, were taking a hard hit from the disease. The U.S. was particularly hard hit. But when the absence of daily news on the deadly flu was only to be found in Spain, it was felt it the virus originating there. The truth was far from it.

Today we are facing a similar, though less deadly, threat, and the disinformation machine is in high gear. This time the media seems to want fear cranked to the highest level.

Washing your hands with soapy water for 20 seconds or longer is the most effective way to prevent the spread of the flu virus, even better than hand sanitizers.

Since I have no formal medical training, I will leave the medical advice to those qualified to give it. What I can do, as an accountant, is reveal the truth behind the never-ending statistics and how they have been manipulated to scare us at the highest level. COVID-19 is a serious health issue without a doubt. It spreads easy and fast with a heightened risk of death. These simple facts make it easy to scare people into clearing their savings account to stock up on toilet paper and other essentials.

The level of fear has filled my email box from clients and readers worried about the state of affairs and how it will affect their finances. I have worked hard on social media to provide a steady voice in the whirlwind of conflicting data. It is time I issued a formalized response here to the elevated levels of fear people are experiencing and the risks people face with their investments and personal finances.

Understand, this post is not about specific advice: buy this, sell that. Rather, my goal is to help you control your emotions and control your response to fear mongering and market unrest. That is where real wealth creation finds a home. Buying the right investment does no good if you panic sell before value has been realized. Buying high to sell at a panic low is the surest path to poverty. With new feeds bloated with coronavirus articles it is easy to start thinking the world is about to end. I will show you below, nothing is further from the truth. This has happened before and we know how it ends. (SPOILER ALERT: It will pass and most people will be unharmed. Even the economic damage will be less than expected and will return to normal in a matter of time. It will later be determined that fear caused more damage than COVID-19 did.)

A Short History of Pandemics

Human history is filled with pandemics. Until modern times, diseases ran their course with little effective intervention from doctors. Illnesses ran their course and eventually died out.

The common cold, flu and similar illnesses are also common throughout history. The 1918-19 Spanish Flu was a particularly nasty one. As many as 50 million people died.

Things were different in 1918-19. World War I was coming to an end. Governments involved in The War to End All Wars kept the flu numbers a secret so as not to encourage the enemy or demoralize their soldiers in the field and the folks back home. Only the free press in Spain reported on the people getting sick and the number dying. That is why some thought it started in Spain, hence the Spanish Flu designation. (It didn’t. It probably started in northern China in 1917.)

Pandemics of the past, even those from less than 100 years ago, had less economic impact than today. Supply chains now span the globe. Never before have businesses been so integrated and international in scope. Pandemics of the past killed and sickened people; COVID-19 is also wrecking havoc on the world economy.

Until recently, a nasty flu season was the only way anyone knew something was afoot. Modern medicine gives us a jump start on what to expect. We knew COVID-19 was headed our way because China alerted the world to the pending virus. SARS, the Swine Flu and the H1N1 variety of flu in 2009 are modern examples of pandemic scares. Most of these viruses never circumnavigated the globe, dying somewhere along the way.

And we come back to the Spanish Flu. Somewhere between 20 – 50 million people died from that flu. It came in three waves with the second being the worst. Then it just disappeared. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but the flu virus probably mutated again to a less deadly form. Doctors didn’t discover a cure, social distancing wasn’t a thing and unless you were sick in a hospital it was unlikely you were even quarantined.

The Spanish Flu did have one nasty trait that put it into the history books. Normally the seasonal flu kills the old, very young and those with a compromised immune system. The Spanish Flu killed adults in their prime; the people who usually get sick for a week or so at worst during flu season, but almost always recover.

And that is the first problem with the fear surrounding COVID-19: it generally kills older people, similar to the normal seasonal flu. The very young are spared with only a few healthy adults susceptible. Those over age 60 are at most risk.

Unfounded Fears?

COVID-19 is a nasty flu bug for sure. It spreads very easy and has managed to circle the globe rather quickly. It also makes people very sick that normally only get mildly sick from the flu. Older people face a very high risk of death if they contract COVID-19.

The fears are not unfounded, but are exaggerated. The response has been way overblown compared to the risk profile of the disease. Let’s place this into perspective:

  • Approximately 1.25 million people die each year in vehicle accidents; an average of 3,287 per day.
  • The CDC estimates between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans die each year from the flu.
  • Annual smoking related deaths in the U.S. are 480,000; 7 million worldwide.
  • Heart disease and cancer claim over 1 million per year combined.

As of this writing, 7,158 have died with COVID-19. Read that last sentence very closely as it will be important in a bit. Here are the current numbers.

No one is advocating clearing the roads due to the risks of driving. Many still smoke tobacco and eat an unhealthy diet that increases the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. Yet, one of the smallest risks of dying to-date is causing a panic.

HIV/AIDS caused fear, but no panic. All the mortality risks listed above are a concern, but not at a level that should be disruptive. So what is causing COVID-19 to create such disruptive panic?

First, when the seasonal flu is with us every year and tens of thousand die from it we adjust to the risk as a normal part of life. COVID-19 is new, novel. Novel in this case means people do not have a natural immunity to the virus yet.

Second, COVID-19 spreads fast and very easy. People have not had time to adjust.

Third, people who normally do not die from the flu are. Not like the Spanish Flu, but an elevated percentage of healthy middle age people are dying from COVID-19.

All three combined has caused rampant fear. New, fast and potentially deadly to people who normally do not fear the flu has generated panic. Then people extrapolate the numbers to the entire world population and get dizzy. Except it is a massive misrepresentation of the facts.

Misleading Numbers

News reports and press releases from world health organizations are very careful how they word their press releases. Mortality rates are extrapolated by the public from the fancy representation of the numbers, but the extrapolations are far from truth.

People dying with COVID-19 are reportedly as high as 3.84%. When people read this they think it is the mortality rate. It isn’t.

Not everyone is tested for the virus. Those most ill are more likely to be tested and all people who are reported to have died with COVID-19 have been tested. (Otherwise how would they know they died with the virus?) This leads to a misrepresentation. If only sick, or potentially sick, people are tested, the number that die from the virus is pulled from a population likely to have contracted the disease. That is like using a test from people likely to have cancer as a representation of the entire population’s cancer mortality risk. The mortality rate for COVID-19 is likely under 1% and even lower for the population at large. Only time will give us an exact, or close to exact, number. Using the data available, COVID-19 is more deadly that the seasonal flu most years, but not anywhere near as deadly as the Spanish Flu.

Another misleading statistic comes from the wording in news reports and press releases from health organizations. They are careful to say someone has died “with” COVID-19 rather than “from” or “because of” COVID-19. This is a serious reporting issue.

Think of it this way. If someone is healthy and contracts COVID-19 they might have mild or no symptoms. But if they die in a car accident before the virus is cleared from their body they died “with” COVID-19. The virus had nothing to do with the death, but is recorded as a disease that the person had when they died.

It is not uncommon for someone to have several contributing factors to their death. Rarely, if ever, do we medically say someone dies of old age. Instead, we list a variety of ailments that contribute to the final cause of death. Cancer and pneumonia  are common causes of death in people over 80. The flu is also a big contributor. Somehow we can’t bring ourselves to say they just got old and died. We need a reason. And that can lead to problems at times like these.

This counting of every death where COVID-19 is present misrepresents the full facts. The patient may have died from other causes at the same relative time anyway. This happens when people get old, and COVID-19 strikes hard at the old, as do many flu strains. This misrepresentation allows for an inflation of the COVID-19 numbers which heightens public fears.

Emotions in Check

People at risk need to take precautions. Because young people can carry COVID-19 without getting seriously ill, it is important to take steps to prevent the virus from infecting older family members inadvertently. That is the real risk with COVID-19; the unknown causing fear.

It is proper to take a break from all but necessary gatherings. The economy will take a short-term hit. It is scary, but not as bad as the media would have us believe. Social media blows it up even worse that the traditional press. Shame on us!

In the modern world this means supply chains will be disrupted. Business will slow and some industries will be very hard hit. The stock market is predicting a doomsday scenario.  It isn’t that bad! For those who are patient and control their emotions, now and in the near future is a good time to increase equity holdings. Keep adding to your retirement plan at work. Dollar cost averaging only works if you keep the regular investments going when the market is down, too.

I know it looks bad right now. Not everyone will contract COVID-19. Most who do will only experience mild illness. The older you are the more important it is to seek medical attention as your mortality risk increases rapidly with age.

The way the numbers are playing out the number of deaths from COVID-19 will be somewhat higher than a normal flu season. However, the fear it induces will keep more people at home and off the road. It is possible the fewer number of people who die in road accidents as a result may be more than all the deaths attributable to COVID-19.

That would make this the first flu strain to reduce the number of deaths by a greater number from other causes than those who die from the virus. Technically, a negative death rate. Again, technically, all factors combined, it could be the least deadly flu strain since the invention of the automobile.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Note: This article originally appeared at The Wealthy Accountant on March 16, 2020.

 

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Category: Personal Finance

About the Author ()

Keith Schroeder is the tax adviser of Mr. Money Mustache and other influential personal finance bloggers. He lives in NE Wisconsin on a farm with his wife and daughters enjoying the natural world. His accounting firm has served the community for over 30 years. He also writes The Wealthy Accountant blog and is the highest net worth blogger listed on Rockstar Finance.

Comments (4)

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  1. Harvey Bernhardt says:

    Good Work

  2. thanks for your well thought out article

  3. I believe it is important to keep calm and keep one’s emotions in check, but your article has really missed important points that make this outbreak the real concern that, hopefully, most people are taking it. Granted no one really knows the actual mortality rate for the coronavirus, but we do know that for appoximately 20% of those infected it becomes serious and requires medical care. What is disconcerting and a cause for real concern is the infection rate. As an analyst, you must look at charts and the charts for the U.S. infection rate are eerie. At the current rate our existing medical facilities could easily be overwhelmed and decisions then made on who to save and who not to. Additionally, there are a big percentage of younger people with preexisting condions ,like diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, cancer and heart disease, who coud have a morbidity rate at the same rate as those in their 60’s & 70’s. COVID-19 isn’t the killer, but rather the other conditions it precipitates like pneumonia. What I believe has caused the panic you fret about is the bungled, incompetent response from this administration to deal with this pandemic from the get go. Though the Chinese government wasn’t forthcoming with data, we still had scientist warning to get moving, but we blew those valuable months of lead time by calling it a hoax and promulgating it might just disappear. Proactive decision making is hard, especially when leaders know the decisions will be unpopular. Unfortunately, with the narcissist in the White House, popularity with his base is all that matters.

  4. William H. Harrison says:

    Thank you. As a mature adult of 93, in excellent health except for recent heart surgery, ostensibly a perfect target for this virus, your statistics would be very comforting if I needed them. I got the “Super” Flu shot in November and I feel great. Your article was very rewarding. It allayed any possible worries.That being said, I’ll still be careful not to catch a cold.
    Thanks again.

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