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The Fuzzy Math Behind COVID-19: Part I

Fear is the most powerful weapon in war. Hitler deployed buzz bombs against London in an attempt to destroy resolve and heighten fear during World War II. It nearly worked, if not for the even greater resolve of the British people and their leader, Winston Churchill. 

Fear is such a powerful weapon that nations will go to great lengths in war to manipulate the news reaching the people. During World War I, only Spain had a reliable free press reporting the deadly flu ravaging troops and populations. No army wanted the world to know they were taking heavy causalities from what would later be called the Spanish Flu. Yet every nation, on the battlefield and at home, were taking a hard hit from the disease. The U.S. was particularly hard hit. But when the absence of daily news on the deadly flu was only to be found in Spain, it was felt it the virus originating there. The truth was far from it.

Today we are facing a similar, though less deadly, threat, and the disinformation machine is in high gear. This time the media seems to want fear cranked to the highest level.


Washing your hands with soapy water for 20 seconds or longer is the most effective way to prevent the spread of the flu virus, even better than hand sanitizers.


Since I have no formal medical training I will leave the medical advice to those qualified to give it. What I can do, as an accountant, is reveal the truth behind the never-ending statistics and how they have been manipulated to scare us at the highest level. COVID-19 is a serious health issue without a doubt. It spreads easy and fast with a heightened risk of death. These simple facts make it easy to scare people into clearing their savings account to stock up on toilet paper and other essentials. 

The level of fear has filled my email box from clients and readers worried about the state of affairs and how it will affect their finances. I have worked hard on social media to provide a steady voice in the whirlwind of conflicting data. It is time I issued a formalized response here to the elevated levels of fear people are experiencing and the risks people face with their investments and personal finances.

Understand, this post is not about specific advice: buy this, sell that. Rather, my goal is to help you control your emotions and control your response to fear mongering and market unrest. That is where real wealth creation finds a home. Buying the right investment does no good if you panic sell before value has been realized. Buying high to sell at a panic low is the surest path to poverty. With new feeds bloated with coronavirus articles it is easy to start thinking the world is about to end. I will show you below, nothing is further from the truth. This has happened before and we know how it ends. (SPOILER ALERT: It will pass and most people will be unharmed. Even the economic damage will be less than expected and will return to normal in a matter of time. It will later be determined that fear caused more damage than COVID-19 did.)


A Short History of Pandemics

Human history is filled with pandemics. Until modern times, diseases ran their course with little effective intervention from doctors. Illnesses ran their course and eventually died out. 

The common cold, flu and similar illnesses are also common throughout history. The 1918-19 Spanish Flu was a particularly nasty one. As many as 50 million people died. 

Things were different in 1918-19. World War I was coming to an end. Governments involved in The War to End All Wars kept the flu numbers a secret so as not to encourage the enemy or demoralize their soldiers in the field and the folks back home. Only the free press in Spain reported on the people getting sick and the number dying. That is why some thought it started in Spain, hence the Spanish Flu designation. (It didn’t. It probably started in northern China in 1917.) 

Pandemics of the past, even those from less than 100 years ago, had less economic impact than today. Supply chains now span the globe. Never before have businesses been so integrated and international in scope. Pandemics of the past killed and sickened people; COVID-19 is also wrecking havoc on the world economy.

Until recently, a nasty flu season was the only way anyone knew something was afoot. Modern medicine gives us a jump start on what to expect. We knew COVID-19 was headed our way because China alerted the world to the pending virus. SARS, the Swine Flu and the H1N1 variety of flu in 2009 are modern examples of pandemic scares. Most of these viruses never circumnavigated the globe, dying somewhere along the way.

And we come back to the Spanish Flu. Somewhere between 20 – 50 million people died from that flu. It came in three waves with the second being the worst. Then it just disappeared. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but the flu virus probably mutated again to a less deadly form. Doctors didn’t discover a cure, social distancing wasn’t a thing and unless you were sick in a hospital it was unlikely you were even quarantined.

The Spanish Flu did have one nasty trait that put it into the history books. Normally the seasonal flu kills the old, very young and those with a compromised immune system. The Spanish Flu killed adults in their prime; the people who usually get sick for a week or so at worst during flu season, but almost always recover. 

And that is the first problem with the fear surrounding COVID-19: it generally kills older people, similar to the normal seasonal flu. The very young are spared with only a few healthy adults susceptible. Those over age 60 are at most risk.


Unfounded Fears?

COVID-19 is a nasty flu bug for sure. It spreads very easy and has managed to circle the globe rather quickly. It also makes people very sick that normally only get mildly sick from the flu. Older people face a very high risk of death if they contract COVID-19.

The fears are not unfounded, but are exaggerated. The response has been way overblown compared to the risk profile of the disease. Let’s place this into perspective:

As of this writing, 7,158 have died with COVID-19. Read that last sentence very closely as it will be important in a bit. Here are the current numbers

No one is advocating clearing the roads due to the risks of driving. Many still smoke tobacco and eat an unhealthy diet that increases the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. Yet, one of the smallest risks of dying to-date is causing a panic.

HIV/AIDS caused fear, but no panic. All the mortality risks listed above are a concern, but not at a level that should be disruptive. So what is causing COVID-19 to create such disruptive panic?

First, when the seasonal flu is with us every year and tens of thousand die from it we adjust to the risk as a normal part of life. COVID-19 is new, novel. Novel in this case means people do not have a natural immunity to the virus yet. 

Second, COVID-19 spreads fast and very easy. People have not had time to adjust.

Third, people who normally do not die from the flu are. Not like the Spanish Flu, but an elevated percentage of healthy middle age people are dying from COVID-19. 

All three combined has caused rampant fear. New, fast and potentially deadly to people who normally do not fear the flu has generated panic. Then people extrapolate the numbers to the entire world population and get dizzy. Except it is a massive misrepresentation of the facts.


Misleading Numbers

News reports and press releases from world health organizations are very careful how they word their press releases. Mortality rates are extrapolated by the public from the fancy representation of the numbers, but the extrapolations are far from truth. 

People dying with COVID-19 are reportedly as high as 3.84%. When people read this they think it is the mortality rate. It isn’t.

Not everyone is tested for the virus. Those most ill are more likely to be tested and all people who are reported to have died with COVOD-19 have been tested. (Otherwise how would they know they died with the virus?) This leads to a misrepresentation. If only sick, or potentially sick, people are tested, the number that die from the virus is pulled from a population likely to have contracted the disease. That is like using a test from people likely to have cancer as a representation of the entire population’s cancer mortality risk. The mortality rate for COVID-19 is likely under 1% and even lower for the population at large. Only time will give us an exact, or close to exact, number. Using the data available, COVID-19 is more deadly that the seasonal flu most years, but not anywhere near as deadly as the Spanish Flu.

Another misleading statistic comes from the wording in news reports and press releases from health organizations. They are careful to say someone has died “with” COVID-19 rather than “from” or “because of” COVID-19. This is a serious reporting issue.

Think of it this way. If someone is healthy and contracts COVID-19 they might have mild or no symptoms. But if they die in a car accident before the virus is cleared from their body they died “with” COVID-19. The virus had nothing to do with the death, but is recorded as a disease that the person had when they died. 

It is not uncommon for someone to have several contributing factors to their death. Rarely, if ever, do we medically say someone dies of old age. Instead, we list a variety of ailments that contribute to the final cause of death. Cancer and pneumonia  are common causes of death in people over 80. The flu is also a big contributor. Somehow we can’t bring ourselves to say they just got old and died. We need a reason. And that can lead to problems at times like these.

This counting of every death where COVID-19 is present misrepresents the full facts. The patient may have died from other causes at the same relative time anyway. This happens when people get old, and COVID-19 strikes hard at the old, as do many flu strains. This misrepresentation allows for an inflation of the COVID-19 numbers which heightens public fears.


Emotions in Check

People at risk need to take precautions. Because young people can carry COVID-19 without getting seriously ill, it is important to take steps to prevent the virus from infecting older family members inadvertently. That is the real risk with COVID-19; the unknown causing fear.

It is proper to take a break from all but necessary gatherings. The economy will take a short-term hit. It is scary, but not as bad as the media would have us believe. Social media blows it up even worse that the traditional press. Shame on us!

In the modern world this means supply chains will be disrupted. Business will slow and some industries will be very hard hit. The stock market is predicting a doomsday scenario.  It isn’t that bad! For those who are patient and control their emotions, now and in the near future is a good time to increase equity holdings. Keep adding to your retirement plan at work. Dollar cost averaging only works if you keep the regular investments going when the market is down, too.

I know it looks bad right now. Not everyone will contract COVID-19. Most who do will only experience mild illness. The older you are the more important it is to seek medical attention as your mortality risk increases rapidly with age. 

The way the numbers are playing out the number of deaths from COVID-19 will be somewhat higher than a normal flu season. However, the fear it induces will keep more people at home and off the road. It is possible the fewer number of people who die in road accidents as a result may be more than all the deaths attributable to COVID-19. 

That would make this the first flu strain to reduce the number of deaths by a greater number from other causes than those who die from the virus. Technically, a negative death rate. Again, technically, all factors combined, it could be the least deadly flu strain since the invention of the automobile.

It’s all a matter of perspective.




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Saturday 4th of April 2020

Eating your words here yet? Clients pissed off at all? Just wait till the market dips even lower....

Keith Taxguy

Saturday 4th of April 2020

Ramani, the response was quite good. I don't think anyone expected me to make an accurate call on the market. Neither I, nor you, know where the market will go. My gut tells me there is more stock market pain to come, but I would never trade on that. Been wrong on that too often.

Maybe a better proxy, Ramani is to come back in a year and in two years to see how things have progressed. It would be an interesting exercise. My ego can take it.


Wednesday 25th of March 2020

Hi Keith. I think your analysis might be missing an important discussion about the numerator when we are talking about the death rate. Deaths will lag reported cases by a fairly large amount of time. I can't say it any better than jacob @ ERE so I will simply copy and paste here:

"It takes a median time of 5 days before symptoms appear. Those needing hospitalization will need around 5 days before the disease has advanced far enough to require it. If they move into an ICU, they will spend 5 days there on a ventilator. And if they get terminal, it will take 2 days to die as the virus attacks the heart. That's 17 days between infection and death. Those who die today are thus on average those who were infected 17 days ago---around March 8th. The doubling time in deaths is 3 or 4 days using a policy of social distancing that is half-assedly followed. The harsher the policy, the longer the doubling time.

Therefore, for each person, who dies today, there are 2^(17/4)=19 persons who will die 17 days from now. On April 10th.

It is these 19 deaths that PRESENT measures are intended to prevent. Not the person who just died.

Therefore everything will seem like an overreaction until you shift from anecdotal/present-mode thinking into future-mode thinking. Fundamentally, humans are just terribly bad at comprehending exponential feedback, especially if it comes with a delay. In particular, if only half measures are taken in the present, a linear-thinking mind might conclude that we've solved half the problem. That it's all proportional and we can do some kind of trade off. However, given the exponential relation, it has only delayed the problem by a short time.

In FIRE circles, it's generally understood, that a dollar saved today will throw off way more interest than a dollar saved 30 years from now. Therefore it's better to start now! With an epidemic, it's the same except the timescale is not 30 years but 30 days. Being early is better than being extreme, but since people and their leaders can't/couldn't figure out how to be early, then extreme it is."


Friday 20th of March 2020

I truly appreciate your candor and ability to hold and host a civil discussion. It is refreshing to read respectful posts in and not in agreement with you. I know you have your thoughts on this and many I agree with. I disagree on the magnitude of this. America is honestly half assed this 15 day time frame on distancing. Finally California and New York are doing the right thing. Chicago following suite. It's a pure numbers game and I believe we are not being strict enough. This will be a long fight and will leave many sick and dead. The economic impacted will be unprecedented. I guess we shall see. Regardless, these are scary times and wether or not the media is hyping it up, I feel there will be over 1 million deaths and multi month business shut downs. You just need to check the cdc website for daily updates. Let's hope your right and I'm wrong.

Keith Taxguy

Saturday 21st of March 2020

Ben, I may have a reality check as I look back in time as a future me someday. I am a strong advocate of a free discussion; my opinion is no more valid than another's. Fear is high at this time. I'd rather work to reduce fear even if the outcomes is truly frightening. And for those who do get and ill and die, it will not matter what the statistics say. That weighs on me constantly.

Social Capitalist

Friday 20th of March 2020

Agreed on both points - but FDR left his name on the dam. Really, not much of a choice as he was a politician; FDR credits Hoover and he loses votes; especially amongst the socialists in his party- my history does rhyme! It is very true that winding down the war effort caused problems but when there are large numbers of deaths and illness there is also economic displacement that ripples through the economy taking time to rest upon the shores. I am not solely arguing a Depression because of Spanish Flu - I am stating that the impact has not been studied enough to know. It is interesting that the first SARS pandemic, limited as it was, occurred at the same time as the Great Recession; again I believe we underestimate a pandemics’ abilities to disrupt economies, especially ones in transition. Now, this turn is self imposed and hopefully the consequences are short lived but as wave after wave of virus hits the shores impacts will be felt.

Again, thanks for the conversation. I enjoyed the article and hope that this improves quickly, but I doubt our government has done enough, and certainly not quickly enough, besides hope for spring. I read a lot of comments on multiple sites and you do seem to have a larger number of folks defending the “panickers”. Lastly, I know you devote this site mostly to taxes now but a lot of us still appreciate your insights into other topics. After all, I wouldn’t have a well stocked chest freezer of o hadn’t read this site.


Thursday 19th of March 2020

Hi Keith, thanks for the article. I have a couple of counterpoints. The number of deaths due to traffic accidents or smoking or cancer do not grow exponentially and double every two days like COVID-19. It wouldn't take long to surpass those numbers. And we can somewhat mitigate those situations by driving safely, not smoking, etc.

You also suggest we could end up more like S. Korea rather than Italy. Unfortunately, we have not taken COVID-19 as seriously as S. Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong. Our actions thus far have been more like Italy, and in some respects such as testing we have fallen short of Italy. There are other differences between Italy and US such as median age and number of hospital beds per capita, but given our actions thus far, I think odds are higher that we end up like Italy rather than S. Korea.