“Right now, all people are hearing about are the deaths,” Republican Senator Ron Johnson told the New York Times last week. “I’m sure the deaths are horrific, but the flip side of this is the vast majority of people who get coronavirus do survive.” The problem with this line of reasoning is that “the vast majority” is not a useful standard when measuring a pandemic that is projected to infect at least half the population.
In a follow-up interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson attempted to clarify his thinking, and managed to express it in an even more callous and stupid way:
“I’m not denying what a nasty disease COVID-19 can be, and how it’s obviously devastating to somewhere between 1 and 3.4 percent of the population,” he said.
“But that means 97 to 99 percent will get through this and develop immunities and will be able to move beyond this. But we don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It’s a risk we accept so we can move about. We don’t shut down our economies because tens of thousands of people die from the common flu …
“… getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population (and) I think probably far less.”
Johnson is comparing the virus to auto fatalities. Around 37,000 people die every year in car crashes, which is certainly a lot. But losing 1 to 3.4 percent of people who get the coronavirus would mean millions of deaths. So no, we don’t shut down the economy to prevent 37,000 deaths, but we might shut down the economy to prevent 100 times that many deaths.
Johnson seems to fashion himself a cool-headed sophisticate who is using statistics to rationally assess risk. What he doesn’t seem to grasp is that when you’re talking about the majority of the population of the United States, even a 1 percent chance of premature death is not a small number. It’s a huge number.
Joseph Stalin allegedly said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” It’s not reassuring to hear this philosophy espoused by high-ranking national officials.
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