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Americans need hard data to quell coronavirus panic

Americans need hard data to quell coronavirus panic
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Americans have gone nuts. The level of panic in our country is extraordinary — people hoarding toilet paper, hiding out in their homes, ditching travel plans, stockpiling tuna fish, keeping kids out of school, cancelling hair appointments. (Is nothing sacrosanct?)

If you are over 70, or if your health is impaired in some way — you get a pass for being uber-cautious. You are indeed at risk. Also, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there is no indication of higher risks for pregnant women, other similar viruses have shown women who are pregnant to be more susceptible to serious illness, so be extra careful.

But for everyone else — for heaven’s sake, take a deep breath. I get it that the media are trying to scare the pants off you, but for your own sanity, consider the facts:

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  • Your kids are safe. Not one child is reported to have died from the coronavirus. Some have gotten the disease, but most have exhibited mild symptoms and survived. The World Health Organization reports that in China, only 2.4 percent of reported cases were children and only 0.2 percent of those got critically ill.
  • Nearly all the deaths in the U.S. have involved elderly people, many in their 80s or 90s, and many of them in nursing homes. The mortality rate for people ages 10 to 39 is 0.2, or about the same as the common flu, as reported in the Washington Post.

President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse votes to condemn Chinese government over Hong Kong Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at age 93 White House readies for Chauvin verdict MORE has offended people by minimizing the danger of the virus. But he is correct: The regular flu kills tens of thousands of people every year, with nary a headline to note its impact.

Here’s what rational Americans need in these anxious times: Solid information. Much of the anxiety, the hoarding and other over-the-top behavior has been spurred by contradictory or inadequate reports. One important piece of information that we do not yet have is the mortality rate of Covid-19. The World Health Organization recently reported a mortality rate of 3.4 percent, and said it would likely fall; but that number is based largely on the data out of China, which is widely viewed as inaccurate.

According to the New York Times, experts estimate the mortality rate closer to 1 percent. But there is considerable uncertainty, since testing has been limited and we therefore are comparing only confirmed cases with actual deaths. By comparison, the fatality rate of the common flu is one tenth to two tenths of one percent.

The liberal media is indeed hyping the bad news, excitedly claiming this could be President Trump’s “Katrina moment” that could bring him down, and partly to generate clicks. That helps no one.

They could instead play a constructive role, by covering some of the instances where people have been stricken by the virus, admitted to hospitals and then recovered. For example, a person who attended CPAC was diagnosed with the virus, and is now recovering. An interview with that patient would perhaps calm those who appear to think the end is near.

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Also, they could broadcast some of the good news now emerging. For example, it looks like South Korea’s efforts to contain the virus have slowed the spread of the disease. Officials in that country cancelled large events and closed schools; the number of new cases has slowed dramatically.

Though we should be skeptical of reports coming out of China, where the virus first took root, there are signs that the outbreak is also winding down in that country. 

For instance, President Xi recently visited Wuhan, the epicenter of Covid-19, which he had previously refused to do. In the past, he had stayed clear, sending instead an emissary considered, we suppose, more dispensable.

This past Saturday, China reported only 99 new cases of coronavirus and 28 deaths; just weeks ago the number of stricken patients recorded each day numbered in the thousands and deaths in the hundreds. In past days, all of the new cases were located in Wuhan.

There are two positive aspects to the seeming containment of the disease in China. First, it gives a sense that there is a natural curve to the infection rate, which would appear to take three or four months to hit its peak. Admittedly, Beijing imposed draconian measures to stem the rise, which might not be acceptable in other countries. The suppression of the outbreak came at great cost, but it seems to have worked.

Second, if China gets back to work, much of the economic damage to the U.S. and other connected economies will begin to dissipate.

There is some evidence that China’s manufacturing and production is on the rise. Most compelling is data showing that pollution levels are increasing again. According to Bloomberg Green, “Nitrogen dioxide levels rose across China’s industrial heartland…The reddish-brown gas mainly enters the air from burning fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas. Levels plummeted in February after Chinese authorities locked down communities to contain the virus.” 

Though the return of dirty air surely should not be celebrated, an upturn in output will lead to revived exports, critical to restoring normalcy to the global economy.

The White House is trying to come up with a fiscal package to mitigate the impact of the numerous disruptions caused by the coronavirus. Democrats in Congress will of course disagree and pursue other objectives. It would be inspiring to see our country’s leaders work together to quell the nation’s anxieties. What would that look like?

Honesty, for starters, and a daily briefing about the course and spread of the disease, including the best available information on mortality rates and treatments. Also, an end to the blame game. And, in addition, some measures that will help small businesses and those industries most impacted by efforts to “social distance” survive a likely three to four-month downturn.

Are our leaders up to the challenge? One wonders, and that, in itself, is cause for alarm.

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. Follow her on Twitter @lizpeek.