When It Comes To COVID-19, Let's Have Some Perspective

Updated: May 17, 2020

Perspectivea way to look at something, to think about a situation or problem in a wise and reasonable way. Let’s take this definition and put the current “pandemic” into perspective. To begin this exercise, let’s go back to 1900 and follow the life of an average American named Bill who was born in Providence.

Rhode Island Hospital 1900s

Bill was born at Rhode Island Hospital at a time when the infant mortality rate was an enormous 165 per 1000 births, mainly due to diseases like diphtheria, pertussis, and measles. Despite this number, people did not stop having children or cower in fear. They knew what needed to be done and they did it. Today, these rates are now 6 per 1000 births.

By the time Bill turned 14, the world was in crisis. An assassination in Europe of Archduke Ferdinand led to World War I, often called the “war to end all wars” due to the horrors of trench warfare. By the time it was over in 1918, more than 16 million people were dead, both soldiers and civilians - including nearly 117,000 Americans killed and 320,000 sick or wounded.

Bill had now turned 18 as the war ended, but the world was far from being safe. As soldiers traveled the world and returned home from the war, a virus called the “Spanish Flu” took a foothold and spread like wildfire. The cause of the flu, the H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin, became the deadliest pandemic to ever sweep the world. All told, over 500 million, or one-third of the world's population was infected with 50 million deaths worldwide and 675,000 in the United States alone.

Spanish flu of 1918-1919

During this flu, Bill was among the most vulnerable. The highest mortality occurred in children under 5, among 20-40-year-olds and those over 65. Stories circulated of young people leaving for work healthy and dying in the streets while walking home after an eight-hour shift after contracting the illness. But Bill survived and went on. In this pandemic, as in nearly all viral epidemics that swept the country, only the sick were quarantined during the crisis -- not the healthy.

When Bill turned 21, old enough to have a beer, the diphtheria epidemic had hit its peak. Diphtheria, which caused the swelling of mucous membranes, including those in the throat choking off the airway and ability to swallow, was running through the country. As if the main effects of diphtheria weren't enough, a secondary bacterial toxin sometimes entered the bloodstream and caused fatal heart and nerve damage. This disease was once a major cause of death among children. In that year alone, there were 206,000 cases and over 15,000 deaths. But families survived, went to work and school.

The Great Depression - downtown Providence

Bill went on, investing money he had earned in a grocery store in downtown Providence with his childhood friend, Roy. He also got married and had a daughter. But by the end of the decade, everything Bill had worked for was lost to one of the greatest financial downturns in our country's history - The Great Depression.

The depression began after the stock market crash of October 1929, which sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors. Over the next several years, consumer spending and investment dropped, causing steep declines in industrial output and employment as failing companies laid-off workers. By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its lowest point, some 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half the country’s banks had failed. Savings accounts were wiped out, businesses were shuttered, and once well off families were left starving.

Financially devastated, Bill continued to earn what he could by selling fruit and newspapers. His partner did not fare as well. Roy had suffered "some type" of permanent damage from the 1918 flu and never quite "seemed the same" afterward, according to his family. The loss of the store destroyed him emotionally.

On one cold winter morning somewhere around the Indian Point Bridge, Roy jumped in front of a locomotive ending his life at the age of just 32. Roy was one of 40,000 Americans who took their own lives in 1929. In the next two years, the suicide rate in America spiked to its highest recorded level ever, more than 150 suicides per one million people annually.

The "Dust Bowl"

As America attempted to recover from the depression, a natural disaster of epic proportions gripped the midwest. Drought, high winds and choking dust swept the breadbasket of our country from Texas to Nebraska, killing people and livestock as crops failed across the entire region. This became known as the “Dust Bowl”, which further intensified the crushing economic impacts of the Great Depression and drove many farming families on a desperate migration in search of work and better living conditions.

The horrors of the "Dust Bowl" and the farmers who lived it can be found in a once required reading in high school, "The Grapes of Wrath". In the story, the Joad family is forced to pack up and head to California in seek of a better life. Along the way, they find the road crowded with other migrants, some going and some coming, from California. They hear that the golden state may not be the panacea they were expecting, but they continued on. Once they reached the state, they found it oversupplied with labor, low wages, criminals, and exploitation of workers to a point of starvation. And the government, who had promised to resettle people, was overwhelmed leaving migrants -who were American citizens- to be harassed and abused by local corrupt deputies. The nanny state had failed its citizens once again.

But the dust bowl was more than just a farming disaster. It had health effects as well. Many people developed “dust pneumonia” and experienced chest pain and difficulty breathing. Although it’s not clear how many deaths occurred, estimates ranged from hundreds to several thousand with tens of thousands suffering lung damage and cutting years off their lives. The duststorms became so bad that on May 11, 1934, a massive storm two miles high traveled 2,000 miles to the East Coast, blotting out monuments such as the Statue of Liberty and the U.S. Capitol. But, things improved and America moved on, as did Bill.

World War II in Europe

By 1938, Bill was able to open his store again, but a year later, things were turned upside down as war began to sweep Europe and Asia and eventually involved the United States following an attack on Pearl Harbor. Known as World War II, this conflict directly involved more than 100 million people from more than 30 countries. Larger countries threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources.

World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 70 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, genocides (including the Holocaust), strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in a war. In total, over 405,000 Americans gave their lives in the conflict with over 600,000 wounded.

The war effort did not just affect those in battle. In the United States, Bill's store was once again closed down as he went to work in the shipyards. The war put a heavy burden on basic materials like food, metal, paper, and rubber. To meet this demand, the federal government stepped in and ordered rationing that had an impact on every family in the country.

Rationing poster from World War II

By the spring of 1942, the government began rationing certain foods. It began with sugar, then coffee by late fall. This was followed by meats, fats, canned fish, cheese, and canned milk. Americans were urged to plant "victory gardens" in order to grow their own produce and reduce the stress on the supply chain. Those restaurants that stayed open offered meatless menus and macaroni and cheese became the food eaten several times a week.

The war came to an end in 1945 and the shipyards and war work began to dry up. Bill once again took some modest savings and opened his store again, this time in Cranston. By this point, Bill had become a grandfather and his son-in-law helped Bill in the store.

When Bill turned 50, another conflict sprung up in Asia -- the Korean War. It began in June 1950 and American troops soon entered the war on South Korea’s behalf. As far as American officials were concerned, it was a war against the forces of international communism itself. In July 1953, the Korean War came to an end. In all, some 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives in what many veterans in our country refer to as “the Forgotten War” for the lack of attention it received compared to more well-known conflicts like World War I and II and the Vietnam War. A total of nearly 34,000 Americans lost their lives on the Korean peninsula.

Polio victims in the "iron lung"

As this war raged, a microscopic enemy called the poliovirus reached its peak in 1952 after beginning in 1916. Polio is a viral disease that affects the nervous system, causing paralysis. It spreads through direct contact with those who have the infection. Of the 57,628 reported cases, there were 3,145 deaths. Polio is best remembered for the number of limbs that it crippled in people and the use of iron lungs. By 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine, and by 1962, the average number of cases dropped to 910.

And in that year, the world stood on the precipice of a full-scale nuclear war. In October of 1962, a 13-day confrontation occurred between the Soviet Union and the United States after the discovery of ballistic missiles deployed in Cuba and pointed at major cities in this country. In schools, black shades were installed in case of “the flash” of nuclear bombs exploding and air raid sirens would sound in order to practice seeking shelter from the bombs. The threat came to an end when the Soviets withdrew the missiles on October 28, 1962.

When Bill sold his store and retired in 1965, the United States was entering the Vietnam War. In the period from 1965 to 1974, it was estimated that 1.3 million total deaths occurred in North and South Vietnam with one-third of the deaths reported to be civilians. American deaths totaled 58,000. This war deeply divided this country with riots and protests occurring throughout the nation.

The AIDS epidemic during the 1980s

As Bill neared 70, HIV/AIDS reared its ugly head. Although sporadic cases were reported at first, it began to spread to five continents. When Bill turned 80, HIV had infected nearly half a million people, predominantly gay males, causing a rare lung infection called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) on the west coast and in New York, a very aggressive cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma appeared in its victims.

In 1984, Bill passed away. At that time, HIV/AIDS had spread from gay males to injection drug users. By the end of 1984, there had been 7,699 AIDS cases and 3,665 AIDS deaths in the USA with 762 cases reported in Europe.

In Bill’s 84 years of life, he experienced four major wars, killing over three-quarters of a million Americans and injuring another one million. He saw major epidemics and pandemics killing nearly a million Americans and having lasting effects on untold millions. Yet, he and his generation kept focused, worked, went to school, played outside, and raised their families.

And what about today? We know COVID-19 is a problem, affecting primarily the elderly with underlying health conditions. Sadly, we may never know the real numbers as many deaths have been attributed to this virus which cannot be verified. As of this writing, the numbers reported worldwide are 4.4 Million cases with 301,000 deaths. The average person dying is in their seventies, many with four or more co-morbidities present and most with two or more. Let's look at a few other numbers to put things into perspective.

In the United States, according to the CDC, the age-adjusted death rate for the total population in 2018 was 723.6 per 100,000 people. In 2018, the 10 leading causes of death were heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide. In total, 2,839,205 Americans died in 2018. And, the average lifespan for Americans now hovers around 79. And yet, with all the numbers tossed around, there is no indication that the deaths caused by COVID-19 have increased these mortality rates significantly.

Refrigerator truck used as a temporary morgue

Then comes the breathless reporting of "trucks full of dead bodies" outside hospitals, again, leading to panic by the public. In truth, the trucks have indeed been used, and not because of an overwhelming amount of deaths, but because morgues are full of deceased individuals who cannot be buried because funeral directors are not holding services. A little truth would go a long way to calm the fears of Americans. But, why let a good crisis go to waste, as the politicians say.

We also look to health agencies to help in this battle like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Just how successful have they been in other battles like this? Well, judge for yourself.

Overall, the CDC estimates that between 12,000 to 61,000 deaths have occurred annually since 2010 due to the seasonal flu in the United States. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the seasonal flu kills an estimated 290,000 to 650,000 people per year, nearly twice that of COVID-19 - even with the flu shot. And yet, schools have not been closed and the country is not shut down every flu season. These numbers are not counting random measle outbreaks, the return of whooping cough, assorted noroviruses, Lyme disease, and on and on.

Children are the major victims of malaria

And did you know that another non-flu related malady exists across the world that killed 405,000 people in 2018, where children under five accounted for 272,000 of the dead? That disease is malaria and has been the focus of a battle for decades by the World Health Organization. Where's the success in controlling this problem? Crickets.

According to the latest World Malaria Report, released in December 2019, there were 228 million cases of malaria in 2018 (seven times that of COVID-19 to date) compared to 231 million cases in 2017. The estimated number of malaria deaths stood at 405,000 in 2018, compared with 416 000 deaths in 2017. In 2000, there were 262 million cases, resulting in at least 839,000 deaths. When was the last time you read about this in the New York Times?

And according to Real Clear Science, malaria has killed 4% to 5% of all humans who have ever lived. Pretty impressive when compared to COVID-19. Yet, where are the newspaper reports critical of those fighting this disease or frantic calls to shut down the world?

And, what about dysentery? The World Health Organization reports that in 2017, almost 1.6 million people died from diarrheal diseases globally. Even more upsetting, one-third of all who died from diarrheal diseases were children under five years old. In fact, for most of the past 30 years, children under five have accounted for the majority of deaths from diarrheal disease. What? No daily press conferences about this?

Alcoholism kills 88,000 Americans annually

Now let's tackle the state government approved "essential businesses" that are responsible for the deaths of 568,000 Americans and 10.3 million annually worldwide. During this shutdown, liquor stores have stayed open and cigarette sales have been allowed to go on. Puzzling given the furor over the COVID deaths, because alcohol is directly responsible for 88,000 American fatalities annually according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and 3.3 million deaths worldwide, while the Centers for Disease Control reports tobacco use kills 480,000 Americans and 7 million across the world annually.

But wait, there's more! The National Council on Problem Gambling reports that there are 6 million Americans who meet the criteria of a "problem or pathological gambler" with over $120 billion lost annually, resulting in home foreclosures, loss of businesses, crime, job losses, family strife, and mental illness. Of this group, nearly one in five, or 20% will attempt suicide. Horrific numbers, and although casinos have been shut down, state-sponsored lottery machines continue to stay open as "essential businesses". Yes, the nanny state has shut down daycares, elective surgeries, gyms, and other businesses but kept the lottery machines humming. Curious, that.

An "essential business" that remains open

The common thread here in liquor, tobacco, and lottery sales is the very government forcing small businesses to shut down are benefitting from the tax dollars being generated by these vices while hundreds of thousands die annually either directly or indirectly in the United States from the use of these products -- in greater numbers than the coronavirus or other flu or disease outbreaks. I don't remember any governor standing up and treating adult taxpayers like children and yelling "knock it off" when it comes to buying lottery tickets. Or did I miss something?

So when we look at the life of Bill, we see a man and a generation that experienced far more than this generation has and the fact that life is and always will be full of risks. And we also come to the realization that the government and its bureaucrats cannot protect us from life itself. But today, we see selective risks being supported by the nanny state -- especially when it benefits the bloated bureaucracy.

And one last thing, let's find some perspective with the much-ballyhooed "computer models". The models that are cited by the public health bureaucrats are only as accurate as the information entered into the computer that spits out the report. So if a "researcher" has a specific point of view, or dare I say, political agenda, they will enter the data that they know will give them the result they are seeking. Shocking!

As someone who did research and wrote state and federal grants for healthcare funding, one of the first things I was taught years ago was "when your numbers don't support your argument, look at the percentages". For instance, if last year 5 people were sick, and this year 15 people were sick, an increase of 10 people in a country of 350 million is statistically insignificant. But, if I use percentages, and say "we had a 200% increase in this illness", it sounds much more impressive, the sense of urgency increases and it justifies the big money funding. It's a game that's being used to perfection during "these uncertain times".

So do these numbers require the draconian steps being dictated by the state governments and bureaucrats, such as families and loved ones in nursing homes being separated during their final moments of life? Or the elderly who looked forward to the loving touch of their sons, daughters, and grandchildren every weekend now being forced to view them coldly on a cell phone screen? Residents in assisted living programs being isolated in their rooms with little socialization, a major requirement to keep seniors alive and happy? Retirement funds decimated by a crashing economy while small businesses and those who run them being financially destroyed? Children losing the important peer interactions in school and the once in a lifetime celebration of graduation? The increase in domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide? Think about that.

I am not trying to minimize the impact of COVID-19, for it has been devastating for many reasons and for many families. But the point is, let's have some perspective in this discussion. Remember the definition of perspective - a way to look at something, to think about a situation or problem in a wise and reasonable way - and if we do this with an unbiased eye, we may come to the conclusion that things just don't seem to add up right now given the situation we are in.