Since the title of this piece might cause some to jump to erroneous conclusions, allow me to clarify up front: COVID-19 is not a hoax; the world’s health-care systems are indeed facing a serious crisis; and we cannot simply sit back and let the pandemic run its course. I also do not subscribe to conspiracy theories of any kind.

Having said this, I believe that currently the biggest threat to the world is not some virus, but the widespread existential fear, bordering on panic, that has taken hold.

The central tenet of the “we’re all going to die” sensation that appears to have gripped the world (and allows politicians to impose rules that wreak unprecedented havoc on the lives of billions of people) is that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a lethal threat to all of us.

It is, in a way — but not because the virus is particularly deadly. A simple example can illustrate why this is not a contradiction. If half of the U.S. population were to report to the ER seeking treatment for centipede stings (which are unpleasant and can cause serious complications for some), our hospital system would collapse under the load. The effects would be disastrous. But the problem is not that centipede stings are deadly (they are not, in general); it is that we cannot simultaneously treat tens of millions of people for centipede stings — or for anything else, for that matter.

Masked and standing in line waiting to get into Longs Drugs in Moiliili during COVID-19 pandemic. April 28, 2020
Masked and standing in line waiting to get into Longs Drugs in Moiliili on April 28. As many have come to understand, masks are a good way to prevent droplets from potentially spreading the COVID-19 virus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

This distinction is crucial, because being aware of it enables us to forego impulsive, inefficient, and dangerous decisions (eradicate all centipedes!) and instead choose level-headed and effective responses (educate people about centipedes and how to avoid them).

How does all of this apply to SARS-CoV-2?

The crucial piece of information is this: just as centipedes are not lethal, SARS-CoV-2 is not a killer virus. If it were, fatalities would be sky-high, no matter how good a country’s health-care system is, and no matter how healthy the population is. This is not the case.

Since the pandemic’s peak has passed in most European countries (at least for the moment), we can now answer a simple question: how many more people died in the spring of 2020 than died in the same timespan in previous years? While significant excess mortality was observed in countries whose health-care systems could not cope (e.g., Italy, Spain, UK), the answer is “none” in Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, and Norway.

Many reasons can be cited for Italy or Spain having fared poorly, but little can explain why a killer virus left the mortality rate of all those other countries unchanged, in spite of close to a million people having been infected there. Unless, of course, SARS-CoV-2 is not a killer virus.

‘Resource Overload’

Why is this a critical point? Remember the centipedes. Knowing what kills people (resource overload) is crucial to finding the appropriate response.

As long as politicians and the public believe (or are led to believe) that SARS-CoV-2 is a killer virus, they will impose, support, and demand the most draconian measures to eradicate the threat. Which is precisely what the world and the state of Hawaii are doing — at a staggering cost to the livelihood of vastly more people than would ever catch SARS-CoV-2, let alone die from COVID-19.

Ebola is a killer virus; rhinovirus is not. Bubonic plague is a lethal disease; COVID-19 is not. Smallpox could be eradicated; SARS-CoV-2 will not.

What we need is a level-headed response, commensurate with the threat.

The current administration’s ongoing and accelerating efforts to effectively exterminate SARS-CoV-2 are a response driven by fear and ignorance. Just as we cannot exterminate the flu, we cannot exterminate SARS-CoV-2 — and that is just fine. We found ways to manage the flu (which nonetheless killed over 60,000 in the U.S. in 2018); we can also manage SARS-CoV-2. But the appropriate response to a termite infestation is not to burn down the house (although that works too). What we need is a level-headed response, commensurate with the threat.

The transmission path of SARS-CoV-2 is similar to that of influenza: both spread mainly through droplets that reach our faces either directly or that we deposit in our mouths, noses, and eyes with our own hands after touching contaminated surfaces.

Sure, extreme social distancing and stay-at-home orders are effective at preventing us from picking up those droplets. (Which allows our officials to justify their disastrous course: it works! So does burning down the house.)

What works too though is to prevent these droplets from being deposited anywhere in the first place — by having everyone wear a mask. Not in addition to, but instead of, the current extremes that have caused catastrophic long-term damage. Put away the fuel canister and start tenting.

And then let us double down by keeping our hands out of our faces; this habit will serve us well during the next flu season.

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