Callous as it may sound, the economic and political impact of the coronavirus pandemic will ultimately be determined by the epidemiological and clinical data. Fortunately, in this case, the relevant statistical trends are developing in a much less alarming way than panicked media headlines might suggest.
LONDON – One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. Whether or not Stalin actually said this, it is a cruelly accurate description of economic reality. The global panic about the new coronavirus, COVID-19, is understandable, because every premature death is a human tragedy. But, callous as it may sound, the economic and political impact of this pandemic will ultimately be determined by the numbers. Fortunately, in this case, the relevant ones are developing in a much less alarming way than panicked media headlines might suggest.
Those headlines may become even more hysterical in the coming weeks, because the US has only just started widespread coronavirus testing. It is all but certain that the number of Americans identified as suffering and dying from COVID-19 will escalate rapidly, with financial and economic sentiment responding accordingly, before public opinion in the US and around the world starts to calm by late April or May. But, whatever the precise timing, the statistical evidence in the two months since the outbreak began suggests that COVID-19 will end up having a negligible effect on health and mortality globally, except in China’s Hubei province, where the epidemic started.
The charts below speak for themselves to anyone who understands exponential compounding in any contagion process. The four charts below show how the media, politicians, and investors view the coronavirus threat. In every country where major outbreaks have started, infection levels are escalating almost vertically and apparently following the early pattern in Hubei, with the number of victims doubling every 3-4 days. But note the enormous disparity between the scales of these seemingly similar epidemics (shown on the left and right of the charts). In Hubei, 40,000 people had been infected in the first three weeks of the epidemic. The comparable figures in the first three weeks of the epidemics in South Korea and Italy, the worst-affected countries outside China, were 5,000 and 2,500, respectively.
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