"If we should fear fear, what should we say about panic?," Charles Milliken says in his latest column.
If we should fear fear, what should we say about panic? I have never in my nearly eight decades on this planet seen so much panic over relatively little danger. COVID-19 can be deadly, especially if you are old and ill. But it poses minimal risk to everyone else. In the grand total of deaths by other variations of the same virus, this is quite minor. Tens of thousands of Americans die from plain old ordinary strains of flu each year during the cold months. This sad toll includes hundreds of children.
So how do we handle a disease which infects tens of millions and kills tens of thousands every year? Basically, we ignore it. Do we get our flu shots? No. Only a minority do and I am as guilty as the rest. I havent had a flu shot in years. Its taken as background noise, and life goes on undisturbed. Does the NBA shut down because one of its players gets the flu? I dont think thats ever happened. Do schools shut down because one of the children, or Mrs. Jones who teaches the fifth grade, gets the flu? Not to my knowledge.
This panic impacts me personally, where ordinary flu has not. Bonnie and I were set to travel to Europe on the 18th for five weeks. Once President Trump indicated getting back from Europe would be difficult, to say the least, our long-anticipated journey was out the window. If I thought such bans were likely to save lives, then I wouldnt mind the sacrifice so much, but I doubt steps like this will have much impact. Once the horse is stolen, it is too late to lock the barn.
Travel is trivial, but what about the people who will lose their livelihood as businesses of all kinds either shut down or slow greatly? The money we would have spent would have been their income. Millions of workers depend on travel, entertainment, transportation and hospitality. Will their enforced sacrifices save many lives? I dont think so.
Consider the market reaction to all of this. I cannot know what will be happening when you read this, but as I am writing this the Dow is down another 2,000 points to 21,000 and change. A few weeks ago it was nearly to 30,000. All of a sudden your retirement plans have taken a 25 to 30% haircut and maybe worse. This has been one of the swiftest and most severe losses in market history impacting hundreds of millions worldwide. Life has changed in the twinkling of an eye and it is an open question when it will return to normal. I hope quickly, but I have my doubts.
So what is different about COVID-19 that we would close schools for a disease apparently posing almost no risk to a child, and continue to operate schools when a known child killer is around? Why are we stampeding over the cliff for a disease which in the U.S., except for wildly exaggerated fears, will kill a few hundred, maybe, and ignore what certainly kills tens of thousands?
The best analogy I can think of is termites eating away at a beam. All is just fine, until one fine day the last bite causes catastrophic collapse. The termites of safety and security have been eating away at the supports of our society for as long as I can remember. Safety and security feed on fear, as certainly as those termites feed on wood. I dont have the space to elaborate on the many examples, but just think what a playground was like in 1955. Or other ways we bubble-wrap our children. How likely do you think a bubble-wrapped child is likely to grow into a brave adult?
Once fear is ingrained and a new threat emerges, panic ensues. I cannot know how deadly COVID-19 will turn out to be, but I can guarantee the panic will cause more damage than the cause.
Charles Milliken is a professor emeritus after 22 years of teaching economics and related subjects at Siena Heights University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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