COVID-19 – Unwarranted Hysteria

One of the key aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic which is not being accurately reported is its mortality rate. This is critically important, because the careless implication that mortality resulting from this virus will be catastrophic has led to an extreme over-reaction which has caused significant and unnecessary economic impacts. A close look at the numbers reveals some crucial underlying facts.

The first thing to be aware of is that at this time it is impossible to know the real mortality rate for this pandemic. That can only be estimated, since while the number of deaths resulting from the disease is reasonably well known, there is as yet no clear assessment of the number of persons infected by the disease. An accurate case count can only result from comprehensive testing coverage, and since the virus has spread so rapidly, it has not been possible to conduct testing which is representative enough to provide a reliable estimate. As pointed out by Alan Reynolds of the CATO Institute, it is very likely that the infection counts underlying current mortality rate calculations are significantly underestimated. [1] Underestimation of cases results directly in overestimation of mortality rates.

Probably the best available data at this time comes from South Korea, due to the intense testing which has been conducted there. A high level of testing means a more accurate understanding of the spread of the disease, which therefore drives a more accurate mortality rate calculation. The mortality rate calculation for South Korea is 1.16% as of March 21st, based on data reported by Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC). [2] Further, there is good reason to believe that the mortality rate is even lower than that, since this particular virus includes cases which are asymptomatic, and which therefore might never have been discovered by testing. [3]

Moreover, this mortality rate is concentrated in a couple of vulnerable sectors of the population, particularly the elderly and those who have compromised immune systems. More detailed data from South Korea is instructive. The KCDC data as of March 20th show that people younger than 50 have a death rate of 0.08 percent or less. [4] This is lower than the death rate for the seasonal flu, 0.1%. [5]

Therefore, unless there is something very special about the South Korean resistance to this virus, the at-risk portion of the population does not include the great majority of working age people who comprise the productive sector of the economy. In the U. S., the working age population under age 50 accounts for approximately 2/3 of the workforce. [6]

There is certainly cause for our society to take reasonable measures to inhibit the spread of the disease, such as the travel restrictions invoked by the administration, large scale testing, social distancing and focused quarantines. However, there is absolutely no reason for the panic-induced economic impacts now underway, such as the precipitous decline in the stock market, the empty store shelves, and the large scale shutdowns of factories and businesses and major institutions.

Take the case of the shutdown of the colleges and universities, for example. The direct result of that action is that college students, a low risk population for this disease, will not be returning to school after spring break. Instead, they will be staying at home, with their families, a population which no doubt includes a far greater percentage of at-risk people than is found at college. By closing these schools, the likelihood of serious infections among the general population has been increased, which is precisely the opposite of the intended outcome.

Think about this for a minute. What is it that causes a virus to “run its course?” An important factor has to be that people who develop immunity to the virus after catching it can no longer spread it. If a large enough percentage of the population becomes immune, then the virus is blocked, and can no longer find enough hosts to continue its rapid propagation through the population. So what is the overall effect of isolating low risk populations such as college students? The effect is to preserve large sectors of the population in an uninfected state. While these populations are not significantly vulnerable to the virus, they are capable of sustaining the virus’s propagation if it gets to them. Apparently, the hope is that social distancing regimes will be so effective that the virus will be stopped. This will require near-perfect human cooperation, an unrealistic expectation. By large-scale lockdown of low-risk populations, the the life of the pandemic is being extended, not shortened.

The success in South Korea has not been built on large-scale lockdowns:

“ . . .authorities have focused mandatory quarantine on infected patients and those with whom they have come into close contact, while advising the public to stay indoors, avoid public events, wear masks and practise good hygiene.” [7]

The data in South Korea as of March 21st indicate that about 8,800 of approximately 327,500 people have tested positive, for an infection rate of about 2.7 %. [1] The South Korean curve for new cases began to decrease around March 1st, and has not resumed its original steep climb. [8] The South Korean approach to confronting the disease has clearly been working to curb the spread of the disease.

Unfortunately in the U. S., we have turned a disease which has a mild impact to the great majority of the population into a major economic disaster. We are failing to take advantage of the significant differences in vulnerability to this virus among age groups. Not only does this indicate shortsightedness and a failure to assess the situation with any sort of perspective, it also shows a startling lack of courage. Whatever happened to that resilient fighting spirit that would brave any danger which characterized the American revolution, the pioneers, and the fierce warriors who have fought for America’s freedom? We have become a nation of timid cowards.

If a true medical catastrophe is looming, the last thing we need is panic. Instead, a calm, reasoned, objective assessment of the danger is required, followed by solutions commensurate with the danger. The case count in the United States is rising rapidly due to the very fast ramping up of testing. Instead of allowing this to continue to promote the unreasoning fear driving the stock market and other mindless excesses, let’s instead adjust the disease response as the infection count and death rate are better understood. And if that infection rate and that death rate trend in as low a fashion as has been seen in South Korea, then let’s rapidly draw down the overly restrictive actions that have been taken out of fear and get our economy and daily life moving again.


1. Reynolds, Alan. “The Misleading Arithmetic of COVID-19 Death Rates.” CATO AT LIBERTY. March 2, 2020.

2. “The updates on COVID-19 in Korea as of 21 March.” KCDC Press Release.

3. Reyner, Solange. “Study: 86 Percent of People Infected With Coronavirus Undiagnosed.” Newsmax. March 17, 2020.

4. “The updates on COVID-19 in Korea as of 20 March.” KCDC Press Release.

5. Associated Press. “Is the new virus more ‘deadly’ than flu? Not exactly.” Washington Times. February 18, 2020.

6. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessd March 21, 2020.

7. Power, John. “South Korea’s coronavirus response is the opposite of China and Italy – and it’s working.” South China Morning Post. March 14, 2020.

8. McCarthy, Niall. “Has South Korea Stabilized Its COVID-19 Outbreak?” Statista.March 20, 2020. bibliography)