Widespread asystemic thinking may have cost America the entire month of February, and much of what we’d normally consider credible media were part of that failure.
On January 29, about a week after China’s government shifted from a deny-and-censor strategy to massive action and communication, Chinese scientists published a significant paper in The New England Journal of Medicine. The paper estimated the R0 (the basic reproduction number of an infectious disease) from the first known case of coronavirus in early December through January 4 to be little more than 2. That means that, left somewhat unchecked, each infected person infected two more people. Crucially, the paper pointed out evidence of mild and even asymptomatic cases, unlike SARS, which almost always came with a high fever. It also confirmed the reports that the disease was most dangerous for the elderly or people with underlying conditions. The paper came out just after China made the unprecedented move to shut down all of Wuhan, a metropolis of 10 million people, and also Hubei, a province of 50 million people.
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For people stuck in asystemic thinking, all this may well have seemed like a small, faraway threat. If one merely looked at the R0, the virus wasn’t outrageously contagious. The number was similar to seasonal flu, but nothing explosive like measles, which has an R0 of 12 to 18—one ill person can infect another 12 to 18 people. For an asystemic thinker, it probably didn’t look that deadly, either. The mortal threat was disproportionately to the elderly, who already succumb to colds and influenza at much higher rates than younger, healthier people. The case-fatality rate (CFR), or the percent of infected people who die, for younger people seemed fairly low, perhaps comparable to seasonal influenza, which kills about 0.1 percent of its victims, exacting a toll in the tens of thousands in the United States alone. On January 29, the known global death total for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was still under 200, less than a weekend’s worth of traffic accidents in the United States, let alone the flu. And to an asystemic thinker, the threat seemed remote, unfolding as it was in Wuhan, a place that many people outside China may not have heard of.
Thus from the end of January through most of February, a soothing message got widespread traction, not just with Donald Trump and his audience, but among traditional media in the United States, which exhorted us to worry about the flu instead, and warned us against overreaction. It seemed sensible, grown-up, and responsible. “Get a Grippe, America,” read the headline of one piece that made fun of those worried about this pandemic with a play on grippe (French for “flu,” how clever.) The title said that the flu was a much bigger threat “for now.” There was a New York Times op-ed with a nice alliteration, telling us to “Beware of the Pandemic Panic,” again comparing the coronavirus to the flu, and warning us that overreaction would be worse than the pandemic. (The author wrote a follow-up admitting he was wrong, but claiming that this was a “black swan” event, something unpredictable, rather than what it was: predictable and predicted, a gray rhino). Another New York Times op-ed, on February 5, provocatively titled “Who Says It’s Not Safe to Travel to China?” and written by a tourism-industry reporter, claimed travel bans were unjust and ineffective, and were racist especially because they weren’t issued for flu—and, astonishingly, went on to reassure readers that most coronavirus victims recovered.