A few basic points, which failure to grasp condemns one to live in mindless fear (or mindless fearlessness, but that seems less a problem these days):
- Everybody has a 100% chance of dying within the next 100 years or so.
- Most of us, in the West, get old and weak and die starting around age 50. No, really. By age 79, half of us are dead. By 90, almost all of us are dead. By 120, all of us are.
- There are risks you can reduce, and risks you can’t: never swim in the ocean, and your chances of getting eaten by a shark go from microscopic to even more microscopic (but never go away entirely). Get old enough – and you die no matter what precautions you take.
- It’s boring, hard to avoid things that kill almost all of us: heart attack, stroke, renal failure, cancer, pneumonia. Try as you might, live as healthy as you can, if you live long enough, it’s one of those things, or something equally mundane, that will likely kill you.
- Then there are the rarer but still common stuff, things that kill young and old alike. Chief among these are suicide, murder, and accidents including semi-accidents like drug overdoses. A lot of people die in cars; a lot die getting routine medical care. People choke to death. People die amusing themselves – hang gliding, horseback riding, canoeing are all comparatively dangerous, as are playing football and riding a bicycle.
- Each of us is at some unavoidable risk of dying from anything that might kill us that is not a logical impossibility: not only might you get hit by lightening (about a 0.000078%/yr chance) or eaten by a shark (about 4 people per year worldwide*), but you could be killed by a meteorite (under a 1 in 10B chance) or crushed by having an elephant dropped on you (not going to look it up, you get the point).
- The risk space aliens will kill you is unknown, but might be real, because it is not a logical impossibility. Same goes for werewolf or vampire or Godzilla – they might exist, therefore, they might kill you.
Nobody I know goes around wearing a metal helmet to improve his chances of surviving getting hit by a meteorite; nobody wears shark repellant in Iowa because they might – might, tiny but non-zero chance – get attacked by a shark out in a cornfield. Somewhere in between meteorite death, which I think we can all agree is pointless to worry about, and, I don’t know, developing a meth habit, which I also think we can agree ought to be avoided, there’s some point where prudence would suggest taking reasonable, *proportionate* steps to avoid or minimize risks. Taking a shower is risky; a rubber bath mat reduces that risk to what most sane people consider acceptable. Riding a horse is risky, but it is also fun (so I am told), so people who like to ride horses try to be careful but do it anyway.
Something will kill each of us eventually. Yet we take what we think are prudent risks all the time, because we feel we need to or simply because we want to. We drive to the airport – way more dangerous than flying in a plane – because we want to go somewhere. We deem what we want as worth the risk. As Bilbo says: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. It’s always a question of where we each draw that line – and where we place that line is almost never rational. Let’s take a stab at making it more rational.
In the modern West, your chances of dying in any given year before you’re 50 are pretty small, but start rising rapidly after that. Put another way: it’s a shock, generally, when a 25 year old dies; it’s often a relief when an 85 year old dies. Human bodies are amazingly tough, so tough that they can put up with tons of abuse – e.g., way too much fat, alcohol, drugs – for about 50 years. (See a connection, there? No?)
It is customary – ask your life insurance agent – to consider, first of all, age when trying to understand our risk of death. Then, in the context of age, we consider other ‘risk factors’ related to overall health and behaviors. This is not a perfect way to consider risk, but it’s a start, and far better than irrational fear.
After a rough first year or so, where kids born with health problems die off at a much faster rate than healthier kids, the base level risk of dying in America is very very low for the next 40 years. When people this young do die, it tends to be freakish – murder, suicide, drug overdoses, accidents – or just stupid bad luck – cancer, say. The Usual Suspect listed above start taking over about 50. By age 59 for men and 66 for women, your chance of death reaches about 1% per year – and it keeps going up from there, to about a 10% chance of dropping dead that year in your mid-80s, to 25% in your mid-90s – by which time, few if any of your friends in your age group will still be alive.
So, yes, now, let’s look at the damn virus: according to CDC data, there are no age groups under 85+ where the virus adds as much as 10% to your risk of dying, even based on their pessimistic, beyond dubious numbers.** Or, put another way, if you had a 1% chance of dying this year, the virus, at most, increases your risk to something less than a 1.1% chance of dying this year. So, think of the children: a healthy kid has something like a 0.001% or less chance of dying in a given year. COVID adds less than 0.0001% to that risk. It’s like crossing a street, or walking out the front door – sure, your risk increases, but by so little it would be insane NOT to cross the street (looking both ways) or walk out the door based solely on increased risk. If I’m very old, again, the additional risk is real (maybe) but in any event tiny – what is the difference between an 10% risk of dying and an 11% risk of dying this year if I’m 86? Should I stay locked in my house, away from my family and friends, because there’s a slightly lower chance I’ll die this year if I do? Since loneliness, fear, and depression ALSO add risk, how could it be worth it? Does it cancel out, such that the additional risk (if any) from COVID is less than or equal to the additional risk from loneliness, depression, and despair caused by being locked up like a criminal?
Why is this obvious aspect of the lockups not discussed?
Steps taken to mitigate risk are insane if the base level of the risk those steps are trying to mitigate is not taken into account, and the cost – there is ALWAYS a cost! – of the steps themselves are ignored. It has to be hammered on: the base level risk of COVID to almost everybody is microscopic; the costs of mitigation are beyond measure.
Worrying about everything that might kill you, or worrying about risks you can do little about, is insane. Panic ceases once one looks at the evidence and attempts to follow the flawed logic of the panic mongers. (ex: if the vaccines work, it doesn’t matter to anyone but me if I get it; if it matters to other people that I get it, the vaccines don’t work. Verbal gymnastics don’t change this.)
* I have in good authority – my little brothers, who are surfers – that the death by shark attack numbers are significantly understated. They point out that, every year, especially in Australia, a certain number of people out surfing just don’t come back. What happened to them? If a shark ate them and nobody saw it, they don’t show up in the shark death count. Plausible hearsay.
** What I mean, taking this from William Briggs: In 2020, while the virus ‘raged’, in no age group, excepting the very elderly, did as much as 10% of the deaths in the age group ‘involve’ COVID. So, if you were going to die in 2020, there was under a 10% chance it was going to ‘involve’ COVID. Note, as described above, how small – invisible at this scale, way, way under 1% – the risks of death from any cause whatsoever is for younger people. After kids’ first year, the death percentage isn’t big enough to even register until age 15-24; the risk from COVID is invisible until 45-54 age band, and hardly visible until the age 65-74 band – at which point, people are starting to die of all the usual causes, which is the point of this post.