By Rafael Reyes | CEO, FIGS, Inc.
When Pope John Paul II celebrated mass in Heroes Square in Poland, his country of birth, in 1979 to encourage Poles suffering under communism, he didn’t mention systems of government, Soviet influence, or economic theories. He simply said, “Be not afraid.” By repeating this biblical phrase, he didn’t mean that there was no suffering to come. Indeed, before Poland was eventually freed from the Iron Curtain, many Poles, priests among them, would be tortured and killed by the then-communist security apparatus. What he meant was that by being fearful, you ensure you won’t get to your desired destination, not that you won’t have to pay a price. The Poles heeded the pontiff’s call, chanting, “We want God!” for several minutes.
After seeing the 3 million Poles’ reaction, the KGB Warsaw station chief sent a message to Moscow that they had lost Poland as a reliable ally. It would take more than two decades, but that cable was indeed spot on.
Had we a pontiff today who had a more orthodox understanding of Catholic doctrine, we might have been counseled in the same way, instead of being told, “I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses.” Had the US not been having a political divide that’s the worst since her Civil War, predisposing her left-leaning, globally powerful media to tout every danger, every personal tragedy, every deadly exception, every terrifying statistic about Covid-19, she might be having a more sober response than her government has presently. Had the Philippines not had a mindset of aping everything the US does, we might not be decimating our economy right now. All because of fear.
Politicians fear being wrong. Shutting down an economy because of a deadly disease can never be wrong: If the pandemic turns out to be nothing much, leaders can claim they successfully mitigated the spread of the virus. If the pandemic turns out to be very bad indeed, then the pols can rightfully say they did everything that they could. A win either way.
How fearful should you be? Well, if you had believed the US government’s first estimates of over 2 million deaths this year in their country, then yes, I suppose you should be very scared. But after they downsized that estimate to 100,000-240,000, I would say not that much. When they rectified their models yet again to 60,000+, I would say not at all (and maybe ask, “Are these models worth the computers they’re run on?”). The epicenter of their epidemic, New York City, never filled its hospital rooms, everyone who wanted a ventilator got one (despite being sent only an additional 400 by the federal government, over the cries of its mayor who breathlessly claimed he needed 30,000), and almost none used the hastily constructed hospital tents in Central Park, nor the US Navy hospital ship that was sent there (now sent away).
How much should you fear “mother” nature? Very much, and even more so if she has it in for homo sapiens particularly, as the pope implies, for, you know, being apostates by sipping from plastic straws, using plastic bags, failing to segregate garbage, reading books with bleached white pages, sleeping with airconditioners powered by fossil fuels, riding in vehicles that have internal combustion engines, eating things that have been raised using modern agricultural chemicals, and other such sins of “modern man.” After all, she’ll have her way in the end: you will die no matter what. In fact, if she were solely in-charge all the time—that is, sans the work of man—every day you managed to survive (maybe), you’d be baking in the hot sun or drenched in rain, scrounging about for enough food to hopefully see the day through, before total darkness sets in at nighttime. You would be lucky because you’re in the Asian tropics and don’t have to worry about freezing to death before the sun rises again, and not in Africa where you’re likely not at the top of the food chain.
I don’t think anyone really knows yet how deadly Covid-19 will be, except that we know for sure it’s not as deadly as the “experts” presupposed at first. Just like we know that the Nobel Prize was mistakenly awarded to an economist who used math to prove the major European powers could not possibly go to war because of financial interdependencies—just before the outbreak of World War I. Just like we know that The Population Bomb, written by a Stanford entomologist in 1968, was wrong about mass starvation coming in the 1970s due to overpopulation. Just like we know Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was wrong in predicting in 2006 that sea levels would rise by 40 inches by 2016 (the actual figure is 1.5-2.0 inches, maybe). Because the empirical evidence came in.
While we cannot yet be as certain about the consequences of Covid-19, a little common sense usually goes a long way. Yes, the statistics would have missed some cases because of lack of testing kits. But conversely, the statistics also pick up more than they should because Covid-19 is most often fatal when it has a “co-morbidity” (that is, another illness that accompanies it). As a result, many deaths attributed to Covid-19 should equally be attributed to other diseases, a fact statistics don’t pick up. As of this writing, worldwide, there have been less than 250,000 deaths attributed to Covid-19. Compare this to: a quarter’s worth of deaths from workplace accidents & diseases: 575,000, from diarrhea: 400,000, from traffic accidents: 338,000, from tuberculosis: 312,000, from suicides: 200,000, from malaria: 101,000, from murders: 100,000, from drownings: 80,000. Where are the frantic media headlines and government-enforced measures to prevent all these deaths?
In the Philippines, there have been less than 700 Covid-19 deaths, compared to 3,200 from traffic-related accidents usually in a quarter-year. If we were to decide to clear our roads and sidewalks at the cost of decimating our economy, one would think it should be for the latter, rather than the former. And just to run the math, with a population of 106.7 million, as of this writing we’ve lost 0.0007 percent of our population in the last quarter from Covid-19, a population that is growing 1.4 percent a year.
Now again, as mentioned above, no one yet knows for sure what health consequences Covid-19 will have simply because the necessary data are still coming in. But its economic consequences are abundantly clear. You don’t need to run econometric models. It’s not just the lockdown itself, but the longer-lasting effects of the widespread fearmongering in traditional and social media. Just see how many people around you will do much less of the following because of fear: eat out, visit bars, throw catered parties, window-shop for clothes & household items, take out-of-town vacations, watch sporting events, attend concerts, exercise in public gyms, even send their kids to pre-schools. And if you have a particularly hardy bunch around you, will they modify their behavior if their spouses, significant others, children, and friends are more risk-averse?
We’ll soon be getting a quick lesson on the Keynesian Paradox: On an individual level, if someone stops spending, the person is better off because he/she will have more savings. But for the general economy, if most or all people did that, the consequences would be disastrous.
Is Covid-19 an additional way to die? For sure, but so were cars, airplanes, tobacco, alcohol, swimming pools, electricity, etc. when man started using these. And while I won’t cite statistics here, I’m pretty sure hydrolyzed oils used by fast-food restaurants, various sugars in processed foods, air pollution in urban areas, among many other realities in a highly populated world will be killing more people each year. Which is still preferable to the erstwhile world where you would have had to worry about small pox, bubonic plague, scarlet fever, typhus, typhoid, measles, rabies, cholera, dysentery, mumps, gangrene, leprosy, childbirth death, and infant mortality.
Covid-19 is indeed scarier than many causes of death for its unpredictability, but the biblical imperative to “be not afraid” applies today as it has through the ages. With due respect to those who have grieved, suffered, and died, especially in the line of duty, at the end of the day, it’s just another way to die. Fear will only lead us to more pain and suffering, not less.