Fear is the Contagion

The four words of this essay’s title are exactly my reaction to learning about China’s massive quarantine for the Novel Coronavirus in late-January 2020. I warned my wife and anyone else to prepare for the spread of fear: How it would infect and disrupt distribution of goods and services; how panic would lead to supply shortages; how desperation might cause people to react violently. But following the World Health Organization declaring a pandemic, one year ago today, the outcome over 12 months is much worse than I expected.

Society didn’t suddenly break down from widespread contagion, like portrayed by Hollywood films and TV shows. Instead, the economic and social fabrics shredded over longer time, as well-meaning citizens obeyed orders to “shelter-in-place“, “social distance“, and close their businesses. My contention: When Science catches up with collated data, the forensic analysis will show that governments over-reacted with lockdowns that inflicted more harm than the virus that everyone feared. Meaning: The cure is far more damaging than the disease, which danger is overblown.

Early Days
On this date in 2020, I fully supported WHO raising the pandemic flag—in fact, I had criticized the organization for delaying so long. My wife and I started self-quarantining about a month earlier; our last outing was on Valentine’s Day 2020 to Balboa Park Spanish Village Art Center and to San Diego Zoo. Afterwards, we rarely left our apartment, other than to walk in our neighborhood, and as much as possible we stuck to the alleys between streets.

We were committed to “flattening the curve“—slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus 2); keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients; and save lives—long before the news media popularized the term.

By late-summer last year—with more data available, collated, and peer-reviewed—I preliminarily hypothesized that Coronavirus was far less deadly than epidemiologists and virologists initially predicted. Granted, I am not a medical professional. They were right to be cautious, given the high rate of communicability for a Novel virus—meaning new to humans, who would have little to no natural immunity.

Just the Facts
Here’s some of what we know now:

1. SARS-CoV-2 already had reached community spread long before the first detected cases, based on blood samples collected in mid-December 2019, later tested, and found to contain COVID-19 antibodies.

2. The number of infections already were far greater than early testing showed. For example, on March 1, 2020, when there were 23 confirmed cases among cities Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle, the real number was more likely 28,000, according to data analysis conducted by Northeastern University.

3. These two observations raise question, requiring further investigation: If the Novel Coronavirus had been spreading for months, and already accelerating on an exponential curve, was the sudden rise in cases after being identified as a disease more because of awareness and testing? All the while news stories and lockdowns generated a climate of fear.

4. Let’s go on. Atypically, children are unlikely to become sick after developing COVID-19 and less likely to die. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among the more than 500,000 American deaths attributed to COVID-19, 216 of the victims were between ages 0 and 17.

5. More than 80 percent of people catching COVD-19 are mildly sick or show no symptoms. About 15 percent need some form of treatment, including hospitalization. Five precent go to the ICU. However, the need for treatment is disproportionately determined by age. According to the CDC, from March 1 to Dec. 31, 2020, age distribution for COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization, for males: 0-4 years, 0.6 percent; 15-17 years, 0.8 percent; 18-49 years, 23.9 percent; 50-64 years, 30.1 percent; 65+ years, 44.6 percent. For females: 0-4 years, 0.5 percent; 15-17 years, 0.9 percent; 18-49 years, 28.2 percent; 50-64 years, 24.4 percent; 65+ years, 46 percent.

6. The majority of people dying from COVID-19 are older. According to the CDC, for the same March-to-December timeframe: Ages 65 and older accounted for 75.2 percent of Americans dying in the hospital. Over 50: 94.9 percent. Stated differently, for people age 65-74, the rate of death is 1,100 times greater than someone 5-17 years old. For ages 75-84: 2,800 times greater. For those people 85 and older: 7,900 times greater.

7. People who are young and/or also healthy are considerably less likely to show symptoms, become noticeably sick, or require treatment. But risk rises, sometimes dramatically, when there are other underlying ailments. Returning to the same CDC data set and time period, among adults with COVID-19: 58.4 percent had hypertension; 48.9 percent were obese; 43.percent had metabolic disease; 35.2 percent had cardiovascular disease. More currently, through March 7, 2021: “For 6 percent of these deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned on the death certificate”, according to the CDC. “For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 3.8 additional conditions or causes per death”.

8. These additional observations raise questions: If young and healthy people are least affected by COVID-19, why shut down entire economies? Wouldn’t isolating the sick and old and letting everyone else go to work or school be more sensible strategy? Wouldn’t such strategy also mitigate collateral damage, such as increases in depression, domestic violence, drug use, and suicide?

Florida and California
Because one of my sisters lives in Florida—and the state is widely open for business—and I live in largely closed California, I have been comparing data for months. Consistently, there is little difference in case fatality rates and other meaningful metrics. If that’s so, what’s the point of Governor Gavin “Gruesome” Newsom crushing California’s economy?

According to data collated by John Hopkins University, the case fatality rate in California is 1.51 percent; 1.63 percent in Florida. These numbers alone raise reasonable questions about the effectiveness of lockdowns. Miami-Dade, which among U.S. counties ranks number four for number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, has a CFR of 1.32 percent. That is only slightly higher than here in San Diego (1.29 percent)—ninth on the aforementioned list of counties. Just a reminder: These figures mean that unless you’re in a high-risk category, your chance of surviving the Coronavirus is about 99 percent, or better. Tell me: By what definition does that qualify as a pandemic?

Think about the CFRs in context of this: Florida’s population is considerably higher-risk because of the number of people over age 65 (21 percent vs 14 percent for California, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). But in March 5, 2021 Wall Street Journal missive “Vindication for Ron DeSantis“,  Allysia Finley writes: “Florida’s death rate among seniors is about 20 percent lower than California’s and 50 percent lower than New York’s, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data“. Allysia also explains how Gov. DeSantis isolated and protected high-risk individuals, while opening the state up to more normal life and operations. If you read nothing else about COVID-19, make it this.

Looking at everything I see, the problem isn’t SARS-CoV-2, or the disease it becomes, but the infection of fear—for which my profession of journalism is immensely complicit spreading. People who should be living are instead cowering in fear of dying. One day there will be a reckoning, when well-meaning people making sacrifices to save lives discover they gave up much for nothing.

The pandemic is fear. COVID-19 is the symptom.

I used Leica Q2 Monochrom to capture the Featured Image, specifically for this essay, on Feb. 21, 2021. Vitals, aperture manually set: f/8, ISO 200, 1/500 sec, 28mm; 11:38 a.m. PST.