Coronavirus Mania Exposes Officials’ Data Illiteracy and the China Problem

Tempting it may be to infer malicious motives by campaign season officials, one should look to the paucity, poor quality, and Chinese Communist Party manipulation of data from China as the more likely and more concerning culprit in the disparity between the danger posed by and extreme actions taken against COVID-19. Our leaders should know better than to take data at face value from China, where the Chinese Communist Party's culture of fear leads to the constant manipulation of data for personal profit and protection.
Paramilitary officers make a show of force in Beijing, China on March 18, 2020. Photo: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

With US jobless claims setting an all time record of 3.28 million on March 26, mental health experts making dire predictions about quarantine caused mental illness, and US GDP projected to contract 25% during the second quarter, forcing already struggling businesses to shutter for good, are our officials making the appropriate call? Or is the coronavirus response the greatest American policy blunder since the second invasion of Iraq, driven again by the confluence of incomplete data and media mania? 

An Ill-informed Response

Though there is no doubt the novel coronavirus presents a hazard to older adults (8 out of 10 US fatalities are over 65) and those with pre-existing conditions (over 99% of Italian coronavirus fatalities), the risk posed to the general population—those outside of the high risk category (which, given the poor state of American health due to horrendous lifestyles is estimated to be around 1/3 of US adults)—is limited. Although even a limited threat applied over a sufficiently large population may generate some terrifying numbers, the COVID-19 threat needs to exist in sufficient perspective. As the world economy grinds to a halt and election-year politicians fall over themselves to enact draconian safety measures that burnish their crisis credentials, citizens must consider whether the level of action taken is proportional to the threat at hand.

Since December 2019, when the spread of the disease could have been limited by 95% if Chinese authorities had not spent precious weeks engaging in a fear-driven cover-up, the greatest threat to the world has been misinformation, and, often worse, incomplete information. While the explosion of posts on social media like those that detail how drinking water will allow the stomach’s gastric acid to kill the virus are outright falsities, another challenge that policymakers face is the lack of complete information on the virus’ spread and fatality rate.

As astutely noted by Stanford medical professors Bendavid and Bhattacharya, the “true fatality rate is the portion of those infected who die, not the deaths from identified positive cases.” Doctors Bendavid and Bhattacharya estimate that as many as six million Americans were likely to have been infected with the novel coronavirus by March 6, when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had completed a mere 10,483 tests, confirmed only 214 cases, and announced 14 direct American fatalities from the virus. Thus, while the headline fatality rate for COVID-19 in the United States on March 6 may have been 6.5%, 14 deaths among the millions infected is hardly cause for alarm. Furthermore, those tested “are disproportionately those with severe symptoms and bad outcomes,” meaning that selection bias for testing further contributes to the skewing of fatality rates towards horror and paranoia. 

Admittedly, a lack of widespread testing means that a large number of fatalities from coronavirus may not have been classified as such, but had even 1% of those infected expired from the virus, an additional 60,000 deaths—more than either the number of people who die in the US from the flu or car accidents annually—would not have been missed. 

Accurate Data Faces Lack of Media Coverage

The most reliable and complete data comes from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship quarantined for several weeks in Japan as COVID-19 quickly spread among the passengers and crew. All individuals on board were tested, revealing a case mortality rate of 1%. However, projecting the Diamond Princess fatality rate upon the population of the United States yields a death rate of .125%, as ship passengers were significantly older and less healthy than the average American. Stanford epidemiologist Dr. John Ionnides, who conducted the analysis, acknowledges that the small sample size of only 700 infections on board the ship means that the real fatality rate likely ranges from anywhere between .025% and .625%, whereas the fatality rate for the average flu is .1%.

Thus, when journalists suggest that South Korea’s low fatality rate is a function of the country’s robust healthcare system or high social cohesion—factors which certainly enhance the country’s ability to deal with fatal pandemics—they gloss over the fact that the low fatality rate may likely be the result of more widespread testing that more realistically counts the number of infected.

Armed with these facts, the coronavirus hyper-reaction is an imbalanced attempt to preserve limited hospital capacity at best and seems a calculated re-election booster at worst. Yet, however tempting it may be to infer malicious motives by campaign season officials, one should look to the paucity, poor quality, and Chinese Communist Party manipulation of data from China as the more likely and more concerning culprit in the disparity between the danger posed by and extreme actions taken against COVID-19. Given the initial reports out of China that placed the fatality rate anywhere between 1% and 12%, one can see how well-meaning but data illiterate officials, seeing Chinese data and fearing millions of deaths, may have understood a complete shutdown to be necessary.

Misplaced Faith in the Chinese Communist Party

But officials should already know not to have full faith in any data coming from the Chinese government, where a culture of fear, born from the Chinese Communist Party’s regime of terror and a hierarchical, strictly regimented society, induces officials to lie to insulate themselves from guilt, shame, or worse. The same Chinese officials, whose both greed and fear lead to the constant manipulation of economic data for personal profit and protection, cannot be trusted to be honest when every rational personal motive is aligned with concealment and corruption. A system in which blame results in either a death sentence or a forced disappearance, in which coronavirus whistleblowers were forced to make public apologies and then mysteriously disappeared, is not one that encourages officials to be honest and transparent. 

Episodes like China’s deliveries to Europe and Asia of COVID-19 test kits that are only 30% accurate only serve to highlight the dangerous effects of Chinese Communist Party oppression and the critical eye one must apply to all Chinese information. Surely at some point in the production of such vast quantities of medical supplies, amounting to billions of dollars, it became apparent that the tests were subject to high failure rates, but rather than halt the progress of manufacturing and risk contempt, whistleblowers were either silenced or never materialized out of fear.

Yet, rather than blame local officials looking out for their own welfare, whether in America or China, it is time for the Chinese Communist Party to be condemned for its role in the fostering, cover-up, and disastrous economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the proliferation of exotic animal serving “wet markets” that have long and repeatedly been called “continuing sources of severe acute respiratory virus and influenza,” the concerted cover-up of the outbreak by Chinese officials, the obfuscation of the collection of coronavirus data, and even the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson declaring that “it might be the US army” that brought the coronavirus to China, the Chinese Communist Party has proven itself to be both a negligent custodian of its own people and an unscrupulous player deserving of international scorn. Rather than simplistic talk of trade deficits, a real conversation must be had about China’s place in the American-led order and what must be done to ensure that China’s influence, like the viruses that continue to fester in and be released from its polluted bowels, is contained. 

On the domestic front, it is time to take measured steps to release the nation from quarantine. Still-cautious public health officials could start by providing guidance suggesting protective quarantine for those over 65 or with pre-existing conditions. Experts agree the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed by the Senate is “not enough”; the only lasting relief—for business owners, for employees, for students—for everyone—will come from ending the COVID-19 shutdown.

At this point, we know which populations are most at risk: adults who over 65 or with heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, uncontrolled asthma, diabetes, or are obese. That leaves nearly 2/3 of American adults at low risk of developing a serious illness from COVID-19 infection; should over 100 million Americans continue to go mad and lose everything that makes life worth living out of mere solidarity with those who are unable to bear the disease, when they would be better served by acquiring immunity through exposure so they can conduct daily economic functions and thus be able to safely care for those most at risk?

Americans are allowed to assess their own appetite for risk in all matter of behavior, from the stock market to choice of personal transportation; if Americans were to be of informed of the level of risk for people of different health conditions, they could then make decisions based on the level of risk they are comfortable with. A rural retiree may find themselves perfectly willing to endure the hazard of a supermarket, but may find Sunday church to be too much of a risk. An urban schoolteacher may decide to risk exposure by engaging in all normal daily interaction knowing that he or she may face no serious consequences for doing so. Large public gatherings of over 250 individuals, like sports matches or megachurch services could still be curtailed until widespread testing would allow those who have COVID-19 antibodies in their system due to past infection can be allowed to participate in such events. Once vaccinations become available, the same process can be extended to the general population.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; instead of resigning ourselves to fear and allowing the fear of a viral outbreak to inflict more harm than the virus itself, we must have the courage to look at the data, to challenge prevailing wisdom, and say “enough is enough”—otherwise, we surely deserve to reap what we sow. 

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