Compared to 1918, Today a Death Delayed Is More Likely to Be a Life Saved

Harvard economics professor Robert Barro has a useful NBER working paper showing that lockdowns during the 1918 flu pandemic succeeded in delaying deaths by flattening the curve, but not in reducing the overall number of deaths. Some would use this paper to argue against the efficacy of the current lockdowns. But there is a key difference between now and 1918: Flattening the curve in 1918 resulted in the end in about the same deaths over the 3 year run of the virus. Flattening the curve now is likely to cut off the deaths in about a year when a vaccine comes on line. Now, a death delayed is more likely to be a life saved.

Non-pharmaceutical public-health interventions (NPIs) were measured by Markel, et al. (2007) for U.S. cities during the second wave of the Great Influenza Pandemic, September 1918-February 1919. The NPIs are in three categories: school closings, prohibitions on public gatherings, and quarantine/isolation. Although an increase in NPIs flattened the curve in the sense of reducing the ratio of peak to average deaths, the estimated effect on overall deaths is small and statistically insignificant. The likely reason that the NPIs were not more successful in curtailing mortality is that the interventions had an average duration of only around one month.

The above abstract is from the following Barro NBER working paper. (The link leads to the American Enterprise Institute version of the paper.):

Barro, Robert J. “Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions and Mortality in U.S. Cities During the Great Influenza Pandemic, 1918-1919.” National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc., Working Paper # 27049 (April 2020).

One thought on “Compared to 1918, Today a Death Delayed Is More Likely to Be a Life Saved”

  1. 1. They tell us that the average fatality rate would be around 0.26% and average years-of-life lost around 10 or 11 per fatality, if we don’t “do” “enough”. So around 8 days of life expectancy.

    In places like England that use QALYs, one life-year is taken as around $150K. So 8 days is about $3200. Just the money-printing alone is already past $20K per person and there’s no possible end in sight. And given the discount (quality adjustment) of 30 or 40% that ought to be applied to time obliterated by near house-arrest, 4 months has already cost everyone over 30 adjusted days-of-life, again with no end in sight. And then there’s the ongoing wanton destruction of big chunks of business and cultural life that may never come back. And the wanton destruction of education via conversion to lame, stilted zoom sessions with screechy audio, and the like. And the likely permanent destruction of constitutional rights – after all, there was no clause saying “except if something minor happens to be going around,” despite the dangers that lurked back when it was written.

    How could this obscenely paranoidal, vast overreaction to a very tiny one-time risk possibly be considered worthwhile based on any analysis other than blind, petulant mood affiliation? Where did the crazy notion of paying absolutely any price over even the most arbitrarily small risk even come from? (The Babylon Bee got it dead to right when they wondered why fast food joints hadn’t been shut down over heart disease risk that goes on year in and year out.)

    2. Who (truthfully) says there will be a widely usable vaccine available only a year from now? Maybe 3 years with luck? Maybe 10? Maybe never? Based on all others to date, 1 year is simply cargo-cult thinking. In the domain “anything’s possible”, maybe, but really? If anything goes the tiniest bit wrong, the anti-vaxxers will have themselves a glorious field-day; so count on the officious FDA to slow-walk this one far past every point of exhaustion.

    And after all, the officials lied through their teeth about everything else. Remember about masks being useless? Remember the “two weeks” of “flattening” to keep the hospitals open (and the unused hospital ship in NYC)? Remember about human-to-human transmission not being a big factor?

    This whole thing is just nuts.

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