We are living through a gruesome case study in the irrationality of elites. COVID-19 is a serious disease, but the question of just how serious it is has hardly even been posed correctly, let alone answered intelligently. Yet already our leaders have assumed dictatorial airs and enacted policies that threaten to plunge the Western world into an economic crisis unmatched since the Great Depression. 

Eighty days into 2020, the official worldwide death toll from the coronavirus stands at somewhat over 10,000 lives. That includes fatalities from the final months of 2019 as well, when Chinese authorities initially tried to disguise rather than treat the outbreak of the new disease. The world was utterly unprepared for the virus as it spread from Wuhan. If people continued to die from the virus at the same rate as they have until now, we would be looking at over 46,000 fatalities worldwide, which is appalling. Yet in 2018 there were 48,344 deaths from suicide in the United States alone. There were 67,367 deaths that year in the US from drug overdoses. In terms of fatalities so far, the response to the coronavirus in America has been massively out of proportion to other avoidable public-health threats.

But that’s a static analysis, and the real menace of the coronavirus is not how many lives it has taken already, but how many more lives it will take if it spreads geometrically or exponentially. Estimates range into the millions. But here too, the numbers require context. First, although the data are too unclear to say for certain at this point, there is good reason to think that the more widespread the virus already is, the less lethal it is — infections can go undetected, but deaths generally do not. (The caveat here is that true fatality figures for Iran and China may indeed be concealed by those unfree regimes.) 

Second, death projections have to be understood in relative terms. If, say, 500,000 people in a given country or in a given demographic are projected to die from the coronavirus, that doesn’t mean that those 500,000 people would all otherwise be alive, because all demographics have certain moral projected death rates, and in the case of septuagenarians and people with serious underlying health conditions, those death rates will be significant even absent the coronavirus. 

Suppose that the coronavirus is indeed, as some sobering estimates say, about ten times as lethal as the flu. In 2017, 55,672 Americans died from influenza and pneumonia. A coronavirus (and related episodes of pneumonia) death toll ten times that would be nearly 557,000, which in 2017 terms would have qualified as the third leading cause of death in the country, behind only heart disease (647,457) and cancer (599,108). But coronavirus fatalities disproportionately occur among people with other underlying conditions — which means some of those 557,000 coronavirus fatalities would be people who would otherwise have died just from one of the other two leading causes of death, or perhaps even more likely, the fourth leading cause of death in 2017, ‘chronic lower respiratory diseases’ (160,201), or from some other cause. 

The number that really matters is not the estimated number of deaths from the coronavirus, but the estimated number of deaths above the norm for the population in question. That number might still be dauntingly high, but it will be substantially less than any simple estimate of coronavirus deaths.

There’s no reason to doubt that the coronavirus shifts the actuarial tables in the direction of more deaths, and sooner than they would otherwise occur. But just how much the virus can shift those tables is a question that goes largely unasked. The top-line, context-free estimates of deaths are the ones that grab the headlines.

To raise these points is not to minimize the danger that the coronavirus poses — quite the contrary, these are the points that have to be considered in order to get an accurate estimate of the danger. Common-sense measures against the virus can clearly, easily save lives: wash your hands; cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze (wear a mask, if you can); stay home and isolate yourself if you’re feeling sick; and if you’re well, don’t take risks by attending large gatherings. These sound measures would not only minimize infections and deaths from the novel coronavirus, they would help to mitigate the hardly inconsiderable risks posed by influenza and other diseases as well.

But the public policy response has gone far beyond all that, to shelter-in-place orders and diktats to shut down entire service industries, worsening an already fateful economic predicament for millions of Americans — who are now unemployed or who have lost their life’s savings. Congress responds the only way it knows how, with a bailout, paid for by debt that will trigger another crisis when it ultimately comes due, unless America gets very lucky indeed with the pace of recovery. 

And recovery is now the name of the game. The pandemic will recede, and so will the panic it has touched off — though bad policy precedents will stick around, if the example of the War on Terror birthed by the panic after 9/11 is anything to judge by. The trouble is that China, the source of this global scourge in the first place, is likely to have a lead over the West in terms of rebuilding its economic base. (And let’s be clear that this is indeed a ‘Chinese virus’ in two senses — both in the sense that the Chinese authorities let it get out of hand in the first place, and in the sense that the superstitious appetites of too many Chinese for bats, pangolins, and other wildlife packed with exotic diseases is responsible for this calamity.) 

China is already offering masks and other material aid to Italians and others hard-hit by the virus. China retains a grip on much of the world’s pharmaceutical production capacity as well. The coronavirus crisis has revealed what real power lies in material production, and how evanescent post-industrial wealth like America’s can be. Opponents of President Trump’s tariffs celebrated an American economy that increasingly moved toward financial services, on the upper end, and restaurant and hospitality work, on the lower end. Financial services, restaurants, and hotels are not what the world needs most in the midst of a pandemic. Nor are educrats and hospital administrators and health-insurance executives more useful than manufacturing workers and managers who can produce medicines and medical equipment. Yes, we may own some of the brand names and intellectual property — but sick patients can’t be treated with a corporate logo or a patent lawsuit.

Yet America is in a more difficult political position now than during the Cold War. Back then, only a narrow — albeit influential — stratum of elite opinion was truly pro-communist, though much of the rest of the left-wing of the ruling class was complacent about the Soviet ideological threat. Now the threat is economic, and the ideology that abets communist China is not communism but a globalist distortion of capitalism, one that treats an authoritarian foreign mercantilist state as a free-market actor while damning the slightest defensive measure on the part of the United States as ‘central planning’. There are Americans in our business class who really do imagine themselves to be ‘citizens of the world’ rather than American citizens, and there are ideologues in our political class who feel more affinity for Xi Jinping than Donald Trump. Some of these ideologues are full of outrage at President Trump’s references to the ‘China Virus’, but are rather quiet about China’s expulsion of American reporters at just the moment when Beijing wants to claim that it has the coronavirus wholly under control.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic party nominee, is not the man to check China’s influence or set America on a path less dependent upon the regime in Beijing. Yet Biden has the advantage of irresponsibility — he holds no office and cannot be held accountable for any decisions America’s government makes. As the incumbent, President Trump stands to be judged not only for what he does and doesn’t do, but for whatever happens — even acts of God, from hurricanes to plagues, are laid at a president’s feet, and not only by his enemies. 

But by that same token, President Trump will get a great boost from any bounce back from the depths of economic and epidemiological despair. And some bounce is to be expected, perhaps — let’s hope — if warmer and wetter weather impedes the virus’s spread. Whenever recovery begins, however, it will touch off a new phase in the competition between America and China for the upper hand in world politics, and if the US is to weather the next pandemic and economic collapse, it will have to learn the right lessons from this crisis and the decades of strategic mistakes that led up to it.